The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is the story of Nora Seed, a thirty-something English woman who attempts suicide and ends up in a library between life and death. Its shelves are filled to the brim with an infinite number of books, all holding a life she could have lived had she made different choices. Throughout the novel, Nora jumps from one possible existence to the next, searching for happiness and fulfillment, returning to the library whenever disappointment strikes. As long as the clock is stuck in its midnight limbo, she can try as many potentialities as she wishes. Should she find a life that satisfies, she’ll remain there and slowly forget her previous life and the wonders of the midnight library.

Predictably, the novel has been wildly popular on Goodreads and BookTube. I say predictably because these sorts of self-help books masquerading as novels always receive their fair share of hype and rave reviews. Combine the trite sloganeering of a dozen generic motivational posters with the meandering absurdity of secular philosophy, throw in an unrealized and unsympathetic character and…Bam! You’ve got yourself a bestseller!

My biggest gripe with all forms of self-betterment literature is the authors’ insistence that man can change himself for the moral good if only he finds the right path of spiritual enlightenment. Often, this path is experiential. In Nora’s case, it’s all about learning what she doesn’t want out of life by dabbling in a handful of fantasies. Hers is consistent with the hedonistic, YOLO mentality of my generation. Any relationship or responsibility can (and must!) be conveniently cast aside when it no longer suits the desires of the self. Any experience is meaningful only insofar as it contributes to one’s growth (never mind that growth is a thinly veiled euphemism for pleasure). And all pursuits must be driven by worldly priorities, if not money, fame, or ambition, then the even more nefarious goal of love as the world defines it, a love that is wholly emotionally driven and masturbatory rather than self-sacrificial. Nora’s mantras comprise the liturgy of our time: “Aim to be you. Aim to look and act and think like you. Aim to be the truest version of you. Embrace that you-ness. Endorse it. Love it. Work hard at it. And don’t give a second thought when people mock it or ridicule it.” Even Narcissus would be appalled by the level of self-love embraced in modern culture.

And it was different because she no longer felt she was there simply to serve the dreams of other people. She no longer felt like she had to find sole fulfilment as some imaginary perfect daughter or sister or partner or wife or mother or employee or anything other than a human being, orbiting her own purpose, and answerable to herself.

“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig

This desire for self-perpetuated spiritual change is rooted in delusion. Its preconception is, firstly, that man is inherently good and need only discover or revive that goodness within himself, an idea the Bible wholly rejects: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Secondly, it ignores the absolute destructiveness of sin (Romans 3:9-20), particularly in the embrace of an ethically permissive moral relativism. Thirdly, and most importantly, it denies the reality of spiritual death apart from Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10). We can no more raise ourselves to a new awakening than a corpse can shrug off the clods of the grave and revel in the light of the sun.

1And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Ephesians 2:1-10, ESV, emphasis added

The Midnight Library suffers from the convoluted philosophy of so much of contemporary literature. As the story progresses, Nora decides she must accept herself, flaws and all, while simultaneously fixating on the flaws and failures of others. In one breath, she argues you can’t “let a few less desirable parts” of a person “put you off the whole.” Yet in one possible existence, she throws away a comfortable relationship with a decent man because he’s not exciting enough to fulfill her.

Throughout we read nothing but disjointed ideas from the scrapheap of the Enlightenment: Focus on the connection between yourself and the world. Don’t tie yourself to other people. Oh, but be kind. Whatever you do, don’t live the “mundane, daily theatre of the suburban housewife.” And do something the world considers meaningful (like Nora researching Climate Change). But don’t give in to the delusion of success. Embrace true solitude. Yet love is the only thing that matters. At least Haig rightly has his characters call this confused jumble of maxims an anti-philosophy. No wonder this book appeals to so many. It’s the fast food of literature–quick, easily consumed, and as empty of content as those happy meals are of nutritional value.  

She imagined, now, what it would be like to accept herself completely. Every mistake she had ever made. Every mark on her body. Every dream she hadn’t reached or pain she had felt. Every lust or longing she had suppressed. She imagined accepting it all. The way she accepted nature. The way she accepted a glacier or a puffin or the breach of a whale. She imagined seeing herself as just another brilliant freak of nature. Just another sentient animal, trying their best. And in doing so, she imagined what it was like to be free.

“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig

It’s estimated 80 percent of buyers of self-help books are repeat customers. Clearly, the answer to life’s meaning can’t be found in the “Me” aisle of your local bookstore. No Matt Haig or Paulo Coelho or Rhoda Byrne is going to illuminate life’s secrets for you. (And no, smarty-pants, the meaning of life is not 42.) There is, however, a book where you can find answers. No book has ever topped it as the best-selling and most widely distributed of all time. Maybe you’ve heard of it?

Not only is the Bible the revealed Word of God but it provides us a worldview that is complete and truthful, in stark opposition to the confusion of the self-help genre. In its pages we see God’s plan for redemption, the saving of a particular people through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, His burial, and resurrection. Without His perfect sacrifice, we whom He has chosen to save by grace alone through faith alone would be dead in our sin, utterly separated from the love of God. This is where we find our hope, our purpose, our meaning–in our connection to Christ. There is no self-help in our redemption; there are only people snatched from the clutches of the grave by God’s merciful, outstretched hand. We were slaves to sin but now we have been set free! Compared to the beauty and wonder of this message, Nora’s ponderings are nothing more than an illustration of our culture’s habitual navel gazing.

Until next time, salutations & selah.

One thought on ““The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig: The Fallacy of Self-Help

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