The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

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I first encountered Sei Shonagon in a college course about the personal essay. We talked about her tone in the essay “Hateful Things,” and I wrote about the credibility of her critique.

“Hateful Things” is an interesting piece when considered as an essay because it doesn’t read like any other essay I read for that class. Like the rest of her The Pillow Book, it is partly a list, partly a personal journal entry, and mostly a personal ramble. Yet, Shonagon writes beautifully. It has an interesting organization to it, and from the beginning until the end, “Hateful Things” progresses from generic to personal in a beautiful way. Much of The Pillow Book is similarly personal, and the vibrant personality of the woman who wrote it makes The Pillow Book a delightful, fascinating, and important book to read.

Sei Shonagon collected her writings (a bundle of papers kept inside her pillow) in the late 900s A.D. in Japan while she was working as a lady in waiting to the empress. She may have had a somewhat lower-class upbringing, but her extensive reading and later employment by the empress made her critical of the lower classes. In short, she’s a bit of a snob. Add to the mix a propensity toward middle-of-the-night liaisons and her feminist leanings and Shonagon’s diary becomes not just historically significant but also delightfully amusing.

Nat at In the Spring it is the Dawn took the name of her blog from the first line of Shonagon’s book and says in her review “I like to think that if Sei Shonagon were alive today, she’d have a blog, and a fun one to read it would be too!” I have to agree. Shonagon is witty and sarcastic, honest and playful. I think she was born 1000 years too early, because she loved finding something, be it funny, annoying, or ironic, in the ordinary events of the day. And despite her claim that she “regret[s] that it ever came to light” (page 264) because people have been hurt by her criticisms, I still believe she would have delighted in an unknown international audience that blogging would have given her.

Because Shonagon lived more than 1000 years ago, her work is also an historical and cultural piece. I know nothing about Japan. In fact, I believe The Pillow Book was the first Japanese book I’ve ever read. I learned about the traditions of Heian Japan, including the necessity of proper poetic response to the poetic notes people sent. Although I like to think of myself as a creative person when it comes to writing, I can’t imagine my social status being dictated by the witty poems I write!  I learned a little bit about the superstitions and religious traditions of the era, which I also was completely unfamiliar with. And I loved learning about life in a palace that wasn’t what I was used to hearing about (my only palace exposure previously has been Western, via fairy tales and Arthurian legends).

Because of my ignorance, it would have been very hard to follow the significance of Shonagon’s diary if not for the extensive notes by Ivan Morris. While Morris’s translation is 266 pages, he also includes 80 pages of notes that explain portions of the text and 20 pages of appendices with illustrations of clothes and layouts, details about the calendars and government, and timelines of Shonagon’s life. I wished the text was annotated instead, so I wouldn’t have had to flip back and forth for the entire book, but I loved all the information. I didn’t concern myself with trying to remember all the different names and customs, but I did enjoy learning about them. I suspect this is a book I must reread.

Ivan Morris’s translation is actually an abridgement of a larger, more detailed text. While I hadn’t realized that when I read, apparently most modern translations of The Pillow Book excise similar sections since they are lists that Shonagon wrote to help her remember things and have little interest to a modern reader. The sections that were included were fascinating, and I did find myself interested, even in the brief lists Shonagon kept, especially when they morphed into a personal ramble:

5. Different Ways of Speaking

14. Hateful Things

16. Things that Make One’s Heart Beat Faster

27. Trees

28. Birds

29. Elegant Things

30. Insects

32. Unsuitable Things

(These are just a few: the entire book is peppered with such lists.)

I also love the stories Shonagon included about palace life. Some of them are specifically about herself and experiences (such as 8.” The Cat Who Lived in the Palace”) but others are more generic. It’s as if she’s pretending it’s not her own story, such as 46. “A Lovers Visit,” in which Shonagon talks about “a lady” and her attendants. One can only assume it is her own story. My favorite section was 116. “When I First Went in Waiting.” By this section of the book, I was familiar with Shonagon’s outspoken personality and relationship with the empress and others at Court. To go back and revisit her first impressions of royalty and palace life was then quite entertaining. It was comforting to know that even Sei Shonagon, who was anything but shy, was nervous during her first days in the palace.

Shonagon also had sections dedicated to complaining about people and customs. She had sections delighting in people and customs. She wrote about everything that struck her, and as the introduction states, it’s possible Shonagon was writing some sections as idea-outlines for her possible future novels. Unfortunately, The Pillow Book is the only remaining text by Sei Shonagon, and her life after she left court in 1000 A.D. is unknown.

I call it a diary but The Pillow Book is so much more. It’s a beginner’s education in Japanese Court life. It’s a outline of future novels. It’s an outlet for frustration. It’s a personal history. In the end, I think it’s a fun read.

Do you read blogs by random people who talk about the everyday aspects of their life and yet you find it interesting simply because of how they write about it? Ironically, I don’t but I still enjoyed this book!

[Japanese Literature Challenge 3 because it’s classic Japanese literature]

[Really Old Classics Challenge because it was written before 1600 AD]

[Women Unbound Challenge because it’s about a women’s life]

Reviewed on January 19, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • This sounds like such a fun and eclectic read! I loved the backstory on how the book got its name, and while I never would have had this one ping my radar before, your review has really intrigued me. I actually used to write a more personal “this is my life” blog (and some might argue that there are still elements of that, though perhaps more distilled, on S&TI), so I think it would be really interesting to see such an ancient precursor! I’ll have to remember this version, because one of the things I definitely learned last year is to be more mindful of the translations I pick!

  • You’ve made me want to read this right now! But my library has a different translation, and Powell’s (where I have a giftcard I’ve been saving) doesn’t carry this one either. *sigh*

  • It’s cool that we ended up posting about Shonagon at the same time! (Although your post is much more in-depth than mine, being on the whole book rather than just one list.) I totally loved The Pillow Book when I read it years ago, and reading your review (and writing mine) is bringing that all back. One thing I think is great about her is that if you want it to be, the book can be a gateway into learning all about 10th-century Japan, but it can also be enjoyed on its own merits. It’s amazing to me how many of Shonagon’s list items are still completely relevant today, with no significant changes. “One is telling a story about old times when someone breaks in with a little detail that he happens to know, implying that one’s own version is inaccurate” – still completely hateful, in my opinion!

    And to answer your final question, I don’t normally gravitate toward memoirs/books of random thoughts either, but I love Shonagon.

  • After reading your review, I for sure want to read The Pillow Book in 2010-I really enjoyed your review-I prefer works with the footnotes at the bottom of the page or even an annotated page fronting a a page of text like in the paper back Folger library editions of Shakespeare-

  • Congratulations on reading the Pillow Book! I am still wading my way through The Tale of Genji and find the Pillow Book is just as daunting. I don’t like reading books with loads of footnotes, as it feels more like studying than reading, so although I get a massive sense of acheivement from finishing them I try not to read too many in a year. I’m sure I’ll get round to the Pillow Book one day…

  • Ooh, I’ll be sure to look into this translation! I think Care read and reviewed this one earlier and now you two make me really want to get going.

    On another note, OMGamsothrilledyouchosegeorgetteheyerformarchclassicscircuiticannotevenusethespacebar.

  • Steph, I thought the comparison to a blog was very accurate! I hope you enjoy it. It’s slow but a good one, I think.

    Eva, oh no! I’m so sorry you can’t get a hold of it. I wonder how different the translations are? Maybe I’ll find another and compare. I just went by the online recommendations I found.

    Emily, there is something so universal about Shonagon. Glad you enjoy it too. Which translation did you read? Do you remember?

    Mel U, the extensive endnotes and not footnotes was the only downside to this edition! It was very good.

    Jackie, Murasaki is seeming a bit less daunting to me now! I found the endnotes to be a lot of help at understanding the culture. Does your Genji have good footnotes?

    Aarti, I hope you enjoy it, and I’m glad you’re excited about Heyer 🙂

  • I really love The Pillow Book as well — and also the personal essay. The college class I took on the subject was really transformative and I’ve been happily reading essays ever since.

  • Great review! I still stand by what I said, and completely agree with you that she was born 1000 years too early. She is a snob but her wit and sarcasm are so much fun to read, and I loved how so much of it was completely relevant even now. I’m looking forward to the read-along starting next month and the chance to re-read it. I read this Morris edition the first time so I’m also quite curious to compare it to the McKinney this time around.

  • wher can i possibly download a copy of this book…or if someone has a copy…would you mind sending it to my mail…
    i’d be so grateful for your generosity…thank you in advance
    i just want to read it…base on the review, it sounds wonderful..thanks again and God bless

  • I would love to read a comparison of the 3 different translations available: Waley, Mckinney, Morris. Have you read more than one translation?

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