The Midnight Library


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I wonder if this is the book that everyone would write if they could write a book.  Or perhaps the story everyone would live out if they could live out a fiction story.  What a fascinating concept!  Nora begins the metaphysical journey towards death, but stops off in the Midnight Library where a huge book of her life's regrets resides, along with an infinite number of books of the stories of the lives she could have lived if she'd made different choices.  Her trusted school librarian is the midnight librarian who encourages her to chose a story which erases at least one of her regrets and shows her what the life could've been like.  She slips into it unnoticed and without warning, which leaves her trying to figure out where she is, who she knows and where she needs to go, among other things.  This leads to the more existential question of whether she can be happy in any life.  She is surprised that she doesn't always have the ability to get the outcome she wants.  For example, there are no lives where either her cat or her mother are alive because the library is only about her decisions and not the effects of the decisions of others. (ref. ePg. 116)

The main character studied philosophy in school, so in many parts this book is a mini-study in philosophy disguised as fiction.  It is a cool book, but I didn't fall instantly in love with it.  I've read beautiful descriptions for things I've never felt that allowed me to feel that I had indeed felt it.  This book uses beautiful language but somehow missed the mark on making me feel depression.  I also noted a bit of unusual wording or spelling but was not instantly aware that the story is set in England.  As an American who likes to travel, a foreign setting is fun but, in this case, had no bearing on the plot.

I used three media types:  hard back, audio download and e-Book.  I did not have a preference.  The audio is nice but not outstanding.  It's a bit of a potato-chip book.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex: 1

Religion: 2

Gruesome: 1

Suspense: 1

Morality: 3

Traditional:  1

Sex - A "nocturnal encounter" began with witty banter and then turned out to be a disappointment. (Pg. 153)  "Chihuahua with cataracts tried to have sex with her right leg". (ePg. 206)

Religion - When Nora asks another slider why they only ever see one person in their transitional location, Hugo replies, "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..." (ePg. 148)  A chapter is titled "God and Other Librarians" (Pg. 154) and in this chapter Nora asks Mrs. Elm if she is God.  Mrs. Elm replies, "I am who I am," which is a direct reference to the Bible and words attributed to Jesus.

Gruesome - a cat dies, twice.  Not bloody gruesome but it's super-tragic to Nora, especially when she discovers the body under her bead, which feels gruesome to the reader.

Suspense - a tiny bit suspenseful when the library malfunctions but nothing you can't put down.

Morality - I did not find anything overtly moral or immoral in this book.

Traditional - there is a gay supporting character.

The book begins "Nineteen years before she decided to die..." and counts down from there.  I found the use of the word "decided" intriguing, but I didn't instantly understand that the character would commit suicide. 
Oddly, her decision to do so led to infinitely more decisions to be made in the library.  This character who felt so powerless that they would end their life, wound up with an inordinate amount of power.

Haig did a fabulous job with making an abstract idea into a plausible plot.  There were a couple of spots where I scratched my head, but it seemed more like an editor's oversight than a plot problem.  On pg. 225 Nora came out of her bedroom and found Molly in the hallway.  Molly took her hand and pulled her "towards the adjacent room" (Pg. 224) which, presumably, was Molly's bedroom.  "Nora closed the door nearly-shut behind her" - so now she is in Molly's room.  "It wasn't totally dark in the room.  There was a sliver of light coming in from the hallway..." (Pg. 225)  "She could see the squat rectangle that was Nora's bed." (Pg. 225) - How is this NORA'S bed?  And, along the same line, on pg. 262, when she got sucked out of her life with Ash and Molly, "Moments ago she had been in the garden with Ash and Nora and Plato..." It seems like once again it should read "Molly" but instead reads "Nora".  It's not a huge deal but it made me wonder if there was more to it - if she was considering the other-life Nora as apart from herself and why she failed to mention Molly or if it was truly an editing error.
Discussion Questions

Can you identify with the Sylvia Plath quote at the beginning of the book:
I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want.  I can never train myself in all the skills I want.  And why do I want?  I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.
Does Plath answer her own question sufficiently?  Why does anyone want all the variety possible?

Christians are often told that God has an abundance of gifts He wants to give us but that many of them remain unclaimed throughout our life.  How does the library compare with this idea of unreceived gifts? 
Do you know of any other analogies for unfulfilled possibilities?

Nora commented that she was in her pijamas and it was "only 9 p.m.". (ePg 5) 
What time do you get in your pjs?

Dan objected to Nora being in "The Labyrinth's" because he thought her brother was being selfish and it would  not be a good situation for her, mentally.  She viewed his objections not as a problem, but as a sign of caring. (ref. ePg. 48)  What do you think - was this a red or green flag for their relationship?

When Nora asked Dan if he was happy (ref. ePg. 58), he replied that nobody is happy.  Why did he feel that way?   Is he right or wrong?

Reread "The Pentultimate Update Nora Had Posted Before She Found Herself Between Life and Death". 
(ePg. 60)  Can you identify with any of her feelings?

And have you never walked into a room and wondered what you came in for?  Have you never forgotten what you just did?  Have you never blanked out or misremembered what you were just doing? (ePg. 61)   Did Mrs. Elm's explanation provide a tangible connection to the storyline?  Did you start to wonder if sliding between lives is possible?

When Nora expresses disappointment with the Pub-Dan, Mrs. Elm explains that people change.  Nora reasons that maybe he was always like that and she hadn't seen it.  (ref. ePg. 62)  Which do you think is more likely?

"The art of swimming - she supposed like any art - was about purity.  The more focused you were on the activity, the less focused you were on everything else.  You kind of stopped being you and became the thing you were doing." (pg. 73)  If Nora is always aware that the alternate life is alternate, than is she truly happy or happy for the chance to try another life?  

When Nora was a public speaker and tried to tell the audience about the possibility of other lives, she was returned to the library and there was a severe computer glitch. (ref. ePg. 115) 
Was it because Root-Nora was dying or because speaker-Nora went offscript and was over-thinking things?

Did Nora really want to be a glaciologist or did Mrs. Elm put that idea in her head?
(ePg. 116, ePg. 194 loc. 2457)

Do you agree with Thoreau's advice (ePg. 126): If one advances confidently, in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. 
In her life with Ash, Nora realized that you could tell someone the truth but they would only see it if it aligned with their reality. (ref. ePg. 242, loc. 3054)  She likened it to another quote from Thoreau, "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."  Have you had any experiences that align with this concept?

When Nora felt alone on the glacier, she reflected that true solitude was not a problem.  "The lonely mind in the busy city yearns for connection because it thinks human- to- human connection is the point of everything." (ePg. 126)  Have you ever experienced such solitude?  How much do you value human connection?  Would you rather live happily on a glacier or unhappily in a big city?  Ash thought that social media connections and loneliness had an inverse relationship. Ash referenced Dunbar's number that believes humans are only capable of about 150 social connections at a time. (ePg. 127) Have you heard of Dunbar's number?  Do you think it is accurate?

Reread "Island" (pg. 134).  Have you ever had a near death experience?  Did it renew your hope or will to live?

Do you believe in Gestalt psychology?  (Nora explained it as the human mind dumbing down the universe because our brains can't fully process the world in its natural, complex form. ... It's like how humans never see the second hand of a clock mid-tick..." ePg. 148-149)

Hugo said he liked never having to settle into a life. (Pg. 150)  Would you like to be a slider?  For how long?

What regrets would you most like to undo? (ref. Pg. 151)

One of Nora's "barriers" was saying what she wasn't really thinking. (ref. Pg. 155)  What are your barriers?

Nora told the Brasilian reporter, Marcelo, "that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness.  You can't have one without the other.  ...there is no life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness for ever.  And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you're in." (Pg. 179) 
How can you apply this insight to your own life?

When musician-Nora asked Ravi about Joe, did you catch that he was talking about Joanna or were you surprised, like Nora, to find out that her brother Joe was dead? (Pg. 181)

Nora thought most of her life could be summed up with the word "equidistant". (Pg. 190) 
What word sums up your life? 

Nora told Mrs. Elm that, "sibling rivalry isn't about siblings but parents". (Pg. 193)  Did you experience sibling rivalry when you were growing up and can you now look back and attribute it to your parents? 
Do your children have a rivalry and can you attribute it to your or their other parent?

"Compassion is the basis for morality" - philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. (Pg. 198)  
How can we apply this to today?  Where do you need to be more compassionate?

When Nora saw Ash in a different life, she felt compelled to greet him. (ePg. 203, loc. 2573) 
Does this explain why you sometimes feel compelled to greet someone you don't know?

One of Nora's life rules was, "Never trust someone who is willingly rude to low-paid service staff." (ePg. 204, loc. 2583)  What other life rules can you recommend?

Nora had experienced three types of relationship silence: "passive-agressive", "we-no-longer-have-anything-to-say", and "the silence of not needing to talk". (ePg. 210, loc. 2649)  Have you experienced any others?

Nora said there was nothing wrong with the winery life, but she still desired other lives.  (ref. ePg. 210, loc. 2657)  Which life did you think she belonged in?  Did you think she'd ever be happy?  If you could experiment and choose any life, would you find happiness?

Was Nora right to feel like a fraud in her own life - because she hadn't earned the life? (Pg. 248)

Nora was surprised that in one life her neighbor, Mr. Banerjee, had moved into a care home.  She wondered what was the difference and remembered that Mrs. Elm said to "Never underestimate the big importance of small things...". (ePg. 254, loc. 3195)  She thought perhaps the difference had been only that she'd picked up his medicine or ordered his groceries online.  What small things have you done that have had a big impact or that you hope will have a big impact on the future?  Nora had felt trapped in her root-life but later realized "what sometimes feels like a trap is actually just a trick of the mind." (ePg. 269, loc. 3371)  She recognized that without her root-life, Leo would have a troubled life.  Have you ever felt disappointed with a situation but later been able to connect a meaning to it?

"Every life contains many millions of decisions.  Some big, some small.  But every time one decision is taken over another, the outcomes differ.  An irreversible variation occurs, which in turn leads to further variations."  (ePg. 256, loc. 3226)  What decisions in your life have you continued to second guess or wonder about?  If you had the chance to try a different path, what point would you go back to and what would your new decision be?
Nora realized that even though she might not actually have become an Olympic swimmer, or mother, or vineyard owner, "she was still in some way all those people.  They were all her.  She could have been all those amazing things...she saw the kinds of things she could do when she put herself to work." (ePg. 269, loc. 3366)  What are some of the things you dreamed about becoming?  What other versions live inside of you?

Which of Nora's lives did you like the most? (root-life, pub-life with Dan, root-life but knowing her cat died of natural causes, Australia even though Izzy was dead, successful public speaker, glaciologist, touring musician / ex-girlfriend of Ryan Bailey, animal shelter worker,  philosophy professor on sabbatical to write while married to Ash and raising Molly)

When Nora escaped the library by writing "I AM ALIVE" (Pg. 271) in the blank book that was not written (ref. Pg. 270) - what age did you expect her to wake up as?

Reread "A Thing I Have Learned"(Pg. 277).  What are your favorite points in this passage?


Theme Ideas

Play a trivia game like the pub quiz. (ref. ePg. 48)

Serve coffee and peppermint tea, like Nora drank in different lives. (ePg. 149)
Serve Mexican food like Nora had at dinner with Dylan. (ePg. 204, loc. 2579)
Serve tapas and Rioja like Nora imagined she and Ash would have had in Spain. (Pg. 235)
Serve lentil dal or penne arrabbiata like Ash would cook when he got home early enough. (ref. ePg. 239, loc. 3012)
Serve "a garlicky pasta and broccoli" meal like Joe served when Nora, Ash and Molly visited in "Hammersmith". (Pg. 243)

Decorate with a chess board on top of books to represent the library and the chess games Nora and Mrs. Elm played.

Nora had a heart for animals.  Take up a collection for an animal shelter.

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