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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sei Shonogon's The Pillow Book

It was not my intention to choose The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon because November is nonfiction month, but I love serendipity.

 It started with a letter from an old friend who listed some of the chores she was finally getting around to--  you know, those things we all need to do, but frequently put off.  When writing my reply and mentioning  my own compulsive list-making, I thought about Sei Shonogon, the ultimate list-maker. 

 As soon the thought entered my mind, I had to stop and pull my copy of Philip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay from the shelf so I could share with Penne some of Sei Shonogon's clever and funny remarks.  (I keep my own list of things inspired by Shonogon's in the back of my journals.  Strange, how simply writing annoying things down turns them into something less annoying and how listing delightful things kind of reverberates through the emotions.)

Lopate only includes a few of the items from Shonogon's lists, although there are plenty available on line.  But I'd never read the entire book itself, and so even before getting back to my letter, I ordered a copy of The Pillow Book from AbeBooks.  I wanted a cheap copy because I didn't know if I would really read the whole thing.  The book arrived within a few days, and I've been reading it ever since with such pleasure that now I want a nice hardcover copy.

The Pillow Book isn't a book that you read straight through, there is no plot line or narrative continuity, and various translators put the writings together differently. The Pillow Book is made up of brief observations, comments, and lists.  I'm only on page 79, and have read 3 novels within the same time span.  But I am reading a little every day--a few pages at a time whenever I feel like sitting down and picking it up.  Usually a couple of times a day.  :)

What has been so enjoyable about it is not simply the lists of hateful things, amusing things, pleasing things, rare things, surprising things, etc., but Shonogon's observations of Japanese court life in the 10th c.  An astute observer, Shonogon makes life a thousand years ago and in a completely foreign culture amazingly vivid and oh-so-very human.  

What I take away from each reading is not the cultural differences or the differences between 10th c and the 21st c, but the similarities, and each time I set the book down, I'm smiling.  (OK--I admit that Shonogon's comments and opinions about plants and trees, while charming in small doses, did get a little tedious after a few pages).  On the other hand, her gossip about members of the court is witty and sly, compassionate and snarky--depending on the situation and the people she is discussing.  

There was a lot of night time visiting in the court, and several entries deal with things that are pleasing or displeasing about a lover's behavior:

A gentleman has visited one secretly. Though he is wearing a tall, lacquered hat, he nevertheless wants no one to see him. He is so flurried, in fact, that on leaving he bangs into something with his hat. Most hateful! It is annoying too when he lifts up the Iyo blind that hangs at the entrance of the room, then lets it fall with a great rattle. If it is a head-blind, things are still worse, for being more solid it makes a terrible noise when it is dropped. There is no excuse for such carelessness.

A man with whom one is having an affair keeps singing the praises of some woman he used to know. Even if it is a thing of the past, this can be very annoying. How much more so if he is still seeing the woman! (Yet sometimes I find it is not as unpleasant as all that.)

And for all book lovers:

Pleasing things: finding a large number of tales that one has not read before. Or acquiring the second volume of a tale whose first volume one has enjoyed. But often it is a disappointment.

Rare things:

A son-in-law who's praised by his wife's father. Likewise, a wife who's loved by her mother-in-law. 

The above excerpts are what first drew me to The Pillow Book when I discovered it by means of The Art of the Personal Essay some twenty years ago, but reading about the court activity is what fascinates me now. 

My translation is by Ivan Morris and includes much about the process of translation and organization of the book, as well as plenty of footnotes and additional information about the times in which Shonogon was writing.



  1. As a lover of random comments, conversations and lists, I'd probably love this book. But it sounds like a book you definitely need to own. (After all, it's hard to dip in and out of a library book due in 3 weeks.)
    Oh, and I really like that quote about how the second volume of a tale is usually a disappointment. :) How true!

    1. :) There are comments that you will immediately agree with (her feelings about mosquitoes), comments that are simply random and odd, and comments that are particular to the time and culture. Some of the things she says are so universal and some so personal...fascinating.

  2. I've never been especially interested in reading this book but I think you just convinced me that I would like to very much.

    1. I am enjoying it--a little at a time. References to the blackened teeth -- ahh, how fashions and opinions of beauty change!

  3. This book has been on my reading list for a long time. Maybe I'd better move it up a few places and spend some time with it.

    1. :) I'm impressed with the level of detail about nature and about the workings of the court. Not at all what I would have imagined.