Classic Book Review: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon


From Goodreads: “The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon” is a fascinating, detailed account of Japanese court life in the eleventh century. Written by a lady of the court at the height of Heian culture, this book enthralls with its lively gossip, witty observations, and subtle impressions. 

Lady Shonagon was an erstwhile rival of Lady Murasaki, whose novel, “The Tale of Genji,” fictionalized the elite world Lady Shonagon so eloquently relates. Featuring reflections on royal and religious ceremonies, nature, conversation, poetry, and many other subjects, “The Pillow Book” is an intimate look at the experiences and outlook of the Heian upper class, further enriched by Ivan Morris’s extensive notes and critical contextualization.

I would have never picked up this book if it weren’t for the classics challenge I’m doing. It’s a non-fiction book full of descriptions and lists (no plot) that are invaluable to those who are studying/interested in Japanese culture. That would not include me. It is also interesting to note that this book is 1/3 footnotes and definitions and there is an additional hardcover book to explain what everything means. I did not read the additional book, but I did read most of the footnotes because I actually found this book incredibly interesting. It shocks me to write that! Overall, The Pillow Book brought home to me how women born long ago are just the same as women born now. I know that sounds a bit ridiculous but I know I can think very abstractly about those who lived so far in the past. Yet, we are the same! Some of the things she was irritated by, I thought, “Yes! Me, too!” The descriptions were lovely and poetic (naturally, since she was a poetess). I was a bit surprised to read about how free they were with taking lovers. There are many mentions of when men are supposed to leave in the morning, and how they are supposed to treat a woman after. Another one of my bubbles burst. I did force myself to read at times because this isn’t a book with a plot; it’s not even a diary because it has no dates and events are mixed around as she felt like writing them. Overall, I really enjoyed this and am glad to have expanded my horizons in a way I never expected. As for recommending this book, I’m sure anyone with a love of Japan has either already read it or has it on their TBR. If it sounds interesting, give it a go.

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2016 for the category of a book by a non-white author.