The Midnight Library of Education


As a disclaimer, this article has spoilers of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig.

There are thousands of students across the UK completing their undergraduate degrees, myself included, but will we actually get anywhere? Will we be successful? Will we even be in a job related to our field? Depending on what degree you study, there can be a lot of anxiety over where you'll end up. Even many casual jokes towards us humanities students, because what can you do with a Medieval History, English Literature or Classics degree? A teacher is the most common career suggestion; we all know that isn't for everyone. So, where do we go from our degrees? There are millions of different paths we can take. After reading The Midnight Library, in a collective minute, I was left questioning, am I choosing the right path? In the book, Nora Seed, after a suicide attempt to escape her rather depressing and unfulfilled life, is transported into a library where she can undo her regrets. Nora is able to pluck books from the library's shelves, inserting herself into a "better" parallel life until she discovers the one she likes most. Most of these lives are centred around her possible careers: Olympic swimmer, bar worker, lead singer of a band, philosophy lecturer, glaciologist, mum - among many more. Unfortunately, for all of us, our lives are no magical realism novel. We can't open a book and physically experience different lives as Nora Seed can.
So, what can we do?
From what I have taken from the novel, which offers no direct homage to struggling university students per se, is that we can only live and learn as cliché as it sounds.
Everyone going into university has at least some idea of how their chosen course will direct their futures. For me, English Literature has too many possibilities; if I was Nora, I'd be stuck in the Midnight Library for even longer exploring my options (hopefully, this doesn't happen when I turn 35). But the whole point of university is to learn. We never magically understand who we are, what our ambitions are, the things that make us tick or incite curiosity when we're born. We learn these over time and throughout our lives. When it comes to university there's a thought pattern of, you choose the course to fit in line with the career you want, hence medical. architecture or primary education degrees. Though academics should never be that simple. University itself is a further test of not only discovering our intellectual capacity but also our passions; what areas of the course have piqued your interest? Are there lecturers or friends that have changed how you think? Who do you want to be in the next five or so years? University, although academically educationally, can also be considered a more costly and less cultural "finding yourself" trip. I reiterate that "finding" is in the verb's present tense. Now, most of us either study a subject at university because we enjoy it or we're good at it, both, or because we have a particular career path in mind - obvious I know. But to add to what I've stated, university develops or diminishes all of these things. We simply learn.
So, what does this specifically mean?

To do so, let's transfer back to Haig's The Midnight Library. Regardless, in the novel, we see Nora choose her original root life over the possible, better lives she could be living. Haig, after several chapters of making readers live alongside Nora, crafts an ending where she ends up in her life. At first, I wasn't satisfied with how he ended the book - as if that's a writer's priority - Nora should have ended up as a mother, a Philosophy academic, happy. But she couldn't; not in the way, we might expect. As much as Nora equally wanted to end up in her final life too, she couldn't. Her ability to slide could not grant her true success or happiness, with the simplest explanation of it not being earned. Nora never had to properly live in her new lives; she had the fall-back of jumping into another one. In university, we have the freedom, with some limitations, of course, to learn the way Nora does - from living.
As confusing as it sounds, living and learning are co-dependent. We cannot, comparable to Nora, discover whether we are making the right choices regarding our career prospects without living and learning. Intrinsic to life is sometimes making the wrong choices and if there's one takeaway from Haig's book is that life is less about the degree or the career you end up having, it'd about who you are. Our jobs do not define us. We are our own person, and what degree we choose does not define us either. Nora Seed finds satisfaction in many of the careers she has, but that isn't the key; it's how she changes through experiencing each of them. In plainer terms, it isn't Nora's choice of career that made her less suicidal towards the end of the novel, it's her growing appreciation of life and the possibilities open to her, even at the age of thirty-five (which is no barrier).

So, sure our degrees can offer a prediction of our lives, an ace or a sun tarot card; a magic eight ball with all the "correct" answers", but it's not the degree we choose that really matters; what matters is you, who you are. If you have the right attitude, then you will end up where you should be, or somewhere close. It might sound optimistic or idealistic, but as The Midnight Library explores a multitude of lives Nora could be happy in, why couldn't our own lives follow suit? Maybe there isn't such a thing as destiny, maybe we aren't mythological characters in Arthurian legend or Joey and Pacey on Dawson's Creek - but we make so many choices every day that affect our lives and that does mean something, destiny or not. Our degrees don't make up our destinies, it's what we learn from them and how we live that do - if we were to believe such a thing.
As a note, going to university and continuing education is such a privilege; one that shouldn't be taken for granted. Not everyone has access to student loans from their government or even the ability to have an education full stop. It's wrong to make comparisons, but anyone in the UK especially studying for a degree (or Masters or PhD) would be right to recognise their privilege.

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