The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

“Elegant Things

A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Duck eggs.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Snow on wisteria or plum blossoms.
A pretty child eating strawberries.”

Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress of Japan during the Heian period. One day, she was given some extra paper that had been lying around and decided to use it make a pillow book – a book kept by her bed, where she jotted down stories, memories, lists, and whatever else came into her head.

I loved this little book a lot more than I expected to. For the history buffs, it’s an incredibly detailed picture of court life in imperial Japan. For the artistically inclined, Shonagon’s images and descriptions are beautiful and stirring (“When crossing a river in bright moonlight, I love to see the water scatter in showers of crystal under the oxen’s feet.”). For the intrigue-inclined, there’s tons of court gossip that Shonagon dishes out for us, and she also gives her reader lots of interesting anecdotes about the men she’s slept with (she has lots of rules for how gentlemen should and should not behave when visiting a lover at night). The best part, for me, was the whole tone of the book – if I were to follow Shonagon’s example and make a list of “Things That Give a Comfortable Feeling”, I would put this book at the top. Whenever I was stressing out about tests or papers or work, it was amazingly soothing to pick up this book and read nice anecdotes about rich Japanese women visiting temples, reciting poetry, writing lists, and generally being very clever and elegant all the time.

Shonagon, it must be admitted, is not perfect. She hates lower-class people, especially if dress badly or wear their hair wrong. She also writes at one point, “Men have really strange emotions and behave in the most bizarre ways. Sometimes a man will leave a very pretty woman to marry an ugly one. …I do not understand how a man can possibly love a girl whom other people, even her own sex, find ugly.”

But then she writes little almost-stories like this: “An attractive woman, whose hair tumbles loosely over her forehead, has received a letter in the dark. Evidently she is too impatient to wait for a lamp; instead she takes some fire-tongs, and, lifting a piece of burning charcoal from the brazier, laboriously reads by its pale light. It is a charming scene.”

She tells stories about the Empress, the other courtiers, and makes sure we know her opinions on everything. She lists mountains, lakes, forests, and temples. She gives her opinions on fashions and what colors look good together. Some other sample list titles are: “Things That Are Hard to Say”, “Features That I Particularly Like”, “Things Worth Seeing”, “People Who Look Pleased With Themselves”, “People Who Seem to Suffer”, “Things That Make One Nervous”, “Things That Seem Better at Night Than in the Daytime”, and “Things That Make One Sorry.”

A lovely, charming book. Should be read somewhere near a garden, while drinking tea and listening to nice music.

“I wrote all these notes at home, when I had a good deal of time to myself and thought no one would notice what I was doing. Everything that I have seen and felt is included. …I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and splendid; my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects.”

Verdict: four out of five stars


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