The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon

I’m not a huge one for books that are collections of observations and notes, essentially diaries, but I do have to respect the beauty of the writing in The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon and how it conveys this corner of 10th-11th century Japanese life.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Heidi Julavits.)

As I see it, The Pillow Book is a diary of sorts. It is composed of a series of musings and observations written by Sei Shōnagon while she was a court lady to Empress Consort Teishi in the late 10th century to very early 11th century Japan.

With no seeming overall ordering or linking (in fact, any original ordering and even complete original manuscript appears likely lost by the time it was first printed), there are lists:

17. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

            Dried Hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

            It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

            Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

musings on nature:

84. I Remember a Clear Morning

            I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.

            As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then suddenly sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.

descriptions of court life:

10. I Enjoy Watching the Officials

            I enjoy watching the officials when they come to thank the Emperor for their new appointments. As they stand facing His Majesty with their batons in their hands, the trains of their robes trail along the floor. Then they make obeisance and begin their ceremonial movements with great admiration.


Smoothly runs the river of Yoshino

Between Mount Imo and Mount Se.

Yet, should those mountains crumble,

The river too would vanish from out sight.


and many other similar pieces.

As you can see from the above, the language is quite beautiful and Shōnagon’s thoughts are interesting. She was clearly very educated and talented. Though she sometimes seems a bit obsessed with proper form and class rank, she also seems to be a surprisingly free thinker. Talking about taking lovers, adamant in her own opinions and aesthetics (to the point of being a little catty at times), she does not come across as particularly demure…regardless of how she may or may not have behaved outside of her notebooks.

I generally prefer things with a central narrative, but I still enjoyed The Pillow Book. Even the non-poem portions clearly show the hand of a poet and all of the disparate fragments have a essential unity to them. Diaries and journals may not be my favorite sort of book to read, but I was certainly happy to read The Pillow Book.

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