Book review: “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig

My PI sent me Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library as a book recommendation via Slack a few weeks ago, and I moved it to the top of my reading list. It was a delightful read, not too long, and a good mix of science fiction and philosophy. I would describe it as a mix between Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, string theory, and a clinical pschology manual. Basically.

The basic premise of the book draws on the theory of multiverses: there are an infinite number of universes out there where all possible worlds exist. Whenever you make a decision, there is another universe where you made a different one. A small number of people on the verge of death enter a state of mind where they can cross into these parallel universes and experience what it is like for their alternate selves if they had made different choices. The book follows Nora Seed, who has just committed suicide. She experiences this state of being The Midnight Library, a library filled with books containing the stories of all her possible lives into which she can slip.

Like Scrooge, Nora is given a second chance through a supernatural epiphany of sorts. Unlike Scrooge’s haunting by three ghosts, Haig has opted for an explanation from science fiction that won’t require invoking God or an afterlife. As explained in the book:

All the people [who cross universes] had a deep desire to have done things differently… Some contemplated that they may be better off dead but also had a deep desire to live another version of themselves.

Schrödinger’s life. Both dead and alive in your own mind.

Exactament!

Why is it always just one person that we see? In that place. The library. Whatever.

If I was religious, I’d say it was God. And as God is probably someone we can’t see or comprehend then He– or She– or whichever pronoun God is– becomes an image of someone good we have known in our lives. And if I wasn’t religious– which I’m not– I would think that the human brain can’t handle the complexity of an open quantum wave function and so it organizes or translates this complexity to something it understands. A librarian in a library.

Either way, it sounds unbelievable. To use Scrooge’s words:

You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!

I was afraid at first that the book would encourage a sort of escapism: opening the possibility of running away from our own lives and entering another life where we made different decisions seems much too good to be true. Fortunately, it takes a much different turn that I won’t give away here. The possibility of different worlds where we made different decisions leads to a whole slew of philosophical questions that Nora Seed tackles very well. She is a philosophy major, after all. I don’t think Kierkegaard is explicitly mentioned, but the book reminded me of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ explication of a leap of faith:

In a dazzling and wholly original work, Either/Or, Kierkegaard sets out, in the form of two personae, two radically different modes of existence: the aesthetic, with its life of the senses, and the ethical, with its commitment to righteousness and duty. These constitute two different worlds of feeling and thinking; they amount to two different lives. Each is coherent and consistent in itself but radically incompatible with the other. Which, then, to choose? There are no criteria by which you could make a rational choice. All you could do was decide, nonrationally. You had to make a leap of faith. For the first time a thinker had set out what Isaiah Berlin was to call the incommensurable. Not all values can be realized in a single life. The Platonic idea of the harmony of the true, the good, and the beautiful had been exploded beyond repair. In placing at the center of the moral life this essentially nonrational choice, not of what to do but of who to be, Kierkegaard should be seen in retrospect as the first existentialist.

An entertaining read with some philosophical depth to it.

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