Friday, November 29, 2013

The Pillow Book

I'm known for frequent obsessions that often lead me down rabbit holes for weeks and weeks at a time.  Whereupon, I must then find books, photos, links, papers, etc. to feed a compulsive need to know and understand something.  In recent years, I've been drawn to Charles Lindbergh, Martha Washington, homefront films, little girls' 18th century samplers, among just a few.  Lately, my thoughts fly to Sei Shōnagon, authoress of The Pillow Book and the astonishing things she wrote during her 11th century life in Japan.

Sei Shōnagon can easily be described as a Rosalind Russell type, tell it like it is, tough little cookie.  You would want Shōnagon on your side.  Provided you were not doing one of the annoying things she describes in her book, such as sneezing.

The Pillow Book is a collection of lists, observations, complaints, and joys of a young aristocratic woman of the emperor's court.  The lists are simple, such as, "Things that make me nervous", "Things worth seeing", and "Things I particularly like".  Other prose is full of moonlit verandas and wistful lovers.  As I read through the book, I am never sure what Shōnagon will say next.  At once she expounds on the beauty of  a day that occurs after a "fierce wind" and her love of a "scented robe", and then disagreeably describes letters that arrive without gifts, or people who must cough. More often than not, however, she is distracted by lovely inconsequences, and I find her writing so poetic that I want to have my tea with her, listen with empathy to her pathos, perhaps nod in agreement, hush her...delight in her. 
Even though Sei Shōnagon is removed from me by many centuries, I can relate to her.  She is so clear and honest and yet so touching and endearing.

The Pillow Book has been translated and can be found easily online.  Below are some of my favorite musings.  See if they don't beguile you too:

Things that make one's heart beat faster:

Sparrows feeding their young
To pass a place where babies are playing
When one is suddenly startled by the sound of rain-drops against the shutters
To find a piece of deep violet material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook and forgotten

On boredom:

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 use to love...

Things most elegant:

Duck eggs
Wisteria blossoms
A pretty child eating strawberries
A rosary of rock crystal
(Credit:  Catrin Welz-Stein)


  1. You know, I've been meaning to read The Pillow Book for ages. Now I know I must.

  2. Lizzie, this 900 year old book makes you draw parallels between the 11th century and the 21st. Women still love fashion!

  3. Thank you for this post. One Christmas gift ordered!

  4. Enchanting! I totally understand these little obsessions. I think perhaps mine are more fleeting...