Their Wonderful Lives

by James Wallace Harris

Do you look back over your life tallying a long list of regrets? Do you fantasize about taking roads not taken? Are there people you wished you had thanked, or expressed your love, or just gotten to know? Do you remember saying things you wished you hadn’t? Are there ambitions you regret not chasing? Are you the kind of person that wishes they had some do-overs? Well, I have a book for you – The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. It belongs to a group of books and movies that represent a tiny subgenre of fantasy about living life over:

The Midnight Library is a current bestseller that came out in August. It’s attracting bookworms like crazy for its feel-good inspirations. The Midnight Library offers the same kind of life lessons found in It’s A Wonderful Life, Replay, and Groundhog Day. Evidently, if we’re allowed to live our lives over, we would all learn similar insights. Could that be true? Can we learn just as much by consuming stories about characters with life do-overs?

In The Midnight Library Nora Seed is a 35-year-old woman full of regrets who commits suicide but finds herself not in heaven or hell, but a library. Nora lived in the small town of Bedford, England. Remember, George Bailey lived in the small New England town of Bedford Falls. Unlike George, Nora doesn’t get to see what Bedford would have been without her, instead, she gets to relive her life in countless ways based on taking different forks in her past. That’s somewhat like what Jeff Winston gets to do in the novel Replay who lives his whole life over and over trying different paths each time, and a little bit like Phil Connors experiences in Groundhog Day.

The creator of these stories teach us a kind of philosophy by showing us lives lived over, or even over and over. I do not want to spoil The Midnight Library for you, so I won’t go into its unique plot details or metaphysical conjectures. Let’s just say I found it a very compelling idea for a fantasy pick-me-up.

Have you ever pictured yourself dying and instead of being reborn into any of the traditional religious destinations, imagine yourself coming to in some higher dimension with the true meaning of existence coming back to you? Sort of the ultimate V-8 head slapping moment where you exclaim, “Oh, that’s what life was all about! Now I remember.” Something impossible to comprehend or predict in this life.

I have often wondered that. It’s not what Nora Seed experiences in The Midnight Library, but her story offers an interesting alternative like that. If I had to place a bet, I’d bet that death is oblivion. But it sure would be nice if after dying we found ourselves in some kind of logical reality where all of our existence on Earth made good sense.

Fantasies like The Midnight Library, Replay, Groundhog Day and It’s A Wonderful Life offer a kind of existential hope, a fairytale for adults. The Midnight Library was one of the few bright spots of 2020.

JWH

11 thoughts on “Their Wonderful Lives”

      1. I have had a social anxiety disorder that I am only now shrugging off in a major way that feels like a complete turning point in my life. I look back at decisions in my life in the way of “I could not have acted differently at the time, being the person that I was”. I actively had to make peace with my own past this way. So maybe this book will feel like a confirmation of that new perspective.

        By the way, have you read Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. I’ve seen it mentioned as being very similar to this book, but darker in tone.

  1. I think we’ve talked before about Jo Walton’s Lent, which I call a historico-theologico-fantasy (Cory Doctorow called it “Dante does Groundhog Day” but I’d go more with Milton). It’s a lot heavier than Phil Connors or even George Bailey, but if you can tolerate a lot of Renaissance humanism and deep Catholic theology, it’s incredibly interesting.

  2. Maybe I’ve read too much Science Fiction Time Travel stories so I’m not tempted by changing my past decisions. Sure, it sounds good to contemplate a change in career paths or dating different girls. But the Law of Unintended Consequences always raises its ugly head and bites you. I’m happy with my Life and have no major regrets other than not buying AMAZON stock when it was $50 a share.

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