The Pillow Book

pillow bookOver the past several months, I’ve been lingering over the delightful Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. I didn’t read it in one or two sittings as if it were a novel: rather, I read it slowly, as if each section were a prose poem, sometimes amusing, sometimes touching, but always a vivid and beautiful glimpse of another time and another place. I read the Penguin Classic translation by Meredith McKinney, and I thought it was an absolute gem.

The Pillow Book was written around the turn of the 11th century in Japan during the middle Heian period. It seems to have been a book where Sei Shonagon jotted all sorts of things down, from lists of “things that imitate” (yawns, children) to “things that look better in moonlight” (people who are unattractive but have pleasant personalities) to “infuriating things” (dropping a freshly-cleaned comb in the dirt.) These kinds of lists are a complete delight, because they are so familiar — although ten centuries have passed between her time and ours, so much of what she says is familiar, witty, and aptly described.

Shonagon was a gentlewoman who served the Empress Teishi. The Pillow Book is full of anecdotes about court life, and the stories spring living from the page with every personality, every aphorism, every color intact. For instance, women and men were expected to know vast reams of poetry by heart, and a great deal of court conversation consisted of parrying quotations in the wittiest and slyest way. Shonagon was apparently very good at this game, and reports her own repartee in the most unselfconscious manner, along with many other conversations, word for word.

She also reports, constantly, on everyone’s clothes. I don’t know whether everyone would react this way, but I absolutely loved hearing about how splendid the Court Chancellor looked in a plum-pink robe in the spring-shoot combination, with three gloss-white over-robes and a scarlet sash (or whatever.) I felt that it gave the most magnificent sense of authenticity — what people wore every day, or to sleep in, or for festivals. Through Shonagon’s eyes, you also see what they eat, what role religion plays, what games they play, what children do all day, what pets they have, and on and on. It’s as if, by picking up this book, you can have a small, delightful, crystal-clear window into another world.

I’ve finally finished The Pillow Book, and I’m sorry it’s over, partly because I’ll miss 11th-century Japan, and partly because I’m sorry to lose Sei Shonagon’s witty, acerbic company. She’s quite a woman.

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12 Responses to The Pillow Book

  1. lena says:

    You’re not alone in your love for detail and authenticity. I love when the descriptions of clothing and every-day life are intricate and vivid – it helps me feel like I’m there. And you’re right, it shows just for similar we are.

    Great review! :)

  2. rebeccareid says:

    I think that is exactly how it is meant to be read — a little here and there. I read a few of Shonagon’s essays and I was thinking of finding the book. I’m glad it was so rewarding to read.

  3. Jenny says:

    Lena — thanks! And I’m glad to hear others also enjoy that kind of detail. Whenever I read history, that’s what I look for.

    Rebecca — I haven’t even heard of the essays. Thanks for the heads-up!

  4. rebeccareid says:

    Jenny, The Pillow Book is the collection of essays. You just read them. :)

  5. Shannon says:

    I have this book, and I’ve been wanting to start it for awhile. I’m really glad to hear you liked it, makes me want to read it!

  6. Jenny says:

    Rebecca — oh! I definitely did not think of the pieces in the Pillow Book as “essays.” Unstructured lists, anecdotes, and passing thoughts, more like. Hence the confusion.

    Shannon — I would recommend this to anyone. It’s completely charming. Let me know what you think!

  7. Danielle says:

    Another blogger wrote about this a while back and I added it to my wish list, but I have yet to find a copy. I need to search a little harder (or just break down and order a copy–though is it in print still?). In any case it sounds very good!

  8. Jenny says:

    Danielle — yes, it’s in print. I just bought it not quite a year ago, for my husband. It’s a new(ish) translation from Penguin Classics. I think you’ll love it!

  9. rebeccareid says:

    Jenny, I just picked it up! I’m excited to read it.

    I read some excerpts from this book for a class in the personal essay, so that’s why I’d called it “essays.” I can see what you mean, though: looking at the entire thing, it ‘s a bit different!

  10. Jenny says:

    Rebecca — I know you’ll enjoy it. It meanders here and there and is great fun.

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