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“The only way to learn is to live”: Matt Haig shows us our engagement with the world matters more than we think

The thing about Matt Haig is that he has a deep empathy for the human condition and the human psyche. From his books, we learn that he is a patient man, a kind man, the type of man you want in your corner when you feel lost.

It’s no secret that Haig has had his own battles with depression and suicidal ideation – he has written numerous non-fiction books about his own experiences of both. But that, I think, is how he manages to write such excellent stories. He uses it to tap into both the light and dark inside people and shows the unbearable beauty of existing in today’s world. And his latest novel, The Midnight Library, is no different.

The Midnight Library is a book dedicated to all of us out there who are struggling or going through hell. But Haig uses the character of Nora to teach us the lessons he’s learned himself through his own struggles, and manages to show us that no matter how hard life gets, there is always potential and a way to come back from the worst, as long as we give ourselves the time and opportunity to see it.

‘Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?’

A dazzling novel about all the choices that go into a life well lived, from the internationally bestselling author of Reasons to Stay Alive and How To Stop Time.

Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?

In The Midnight Library, Matt Haig’s enchanting new novel, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.

This is a beautiful book about a person’s will to live and perseverance to survive. Life can be gruelling, there is no question, but it is also full of infinite possibilities, and we are the ones in charge. We are driving that car. We are the one is who get to decide if we make the best of it or give in to it. And, as Haig shows us, giving into it goes against every fibre of our being, of being alive.

We are all Nora Seed. We have dreams that we’ve never realised, or given up on, or never followed through on. We each get stressed by the everyday things in life. We all lose sight of the bigger picture and the things we have accomplished by becoming too bogged down by our obstacles or the negative parts of our lives.

Some of us, even, have also not wanted to be here anymore. Have wanted to stop and give up because we don’t want to fight anymore.

The truth is, we are all much closer than we realise to having a huge, catastrophic breakdown triggered by something that is going wrong in our lives.

However, in this same way, we are all also capable of coming to the same pivotal realisation that Nora does: our actions and engagement with the world matter much more than we think they do.

“It was as though she had reached some state of acceptance about life – that if there was a bad experience, there wouldn’t only be bad experiences.”

– Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

In The Midnight Library, what Nora learns through visiting the other lives – those parallel universes – is the fact that everything a person does positively and negatively affects others, but we don’t need to have regrets about them. When we are faced with a decision, there’s no use in regretting the choice we never took, because for all we know, the outcome from those choices may actually have left us even more unhappy than we currently are. We just don’t know.

Also, there is a bigger lesson to be learned here. Nora wants so badly to leave her current life, and actually finds herself in a different life that is very similar to her original one. So, she is able to see what would have happened had she not existed as she did in her original life and learns an important truth.

Each person’s life touches so many other lives in ways from the mundane to the profound. When that person isn’t around, they leave a gap. And those gaps can manifest into something in ways we could never imagine – which isn’t always a good thing.

Nora doesn’t realise how important she is in the wider picture of her life. Her revelation makes her realise how much she actually wants to be alive as the library falls apart around her. Now, she wants what she originally had and realises that it wasn’t that her life was terrible, it was that she failed to appreciate it as wonderful with all of its possibility.

Haig gives us a beautiful story about a woman coming back from the brink of giving up, accurately demonstrating the struggles of depression and mental health disorders. But he also reminds us that we play a vital part in life’s bigger picture and shows us that what we think we want out of life, and how we spend our days, isn’t actually as important as how we impact the world and people around us, hidden in plain sight, but carved into the hearts of those we love, and who love us.

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