The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon.

Sei Shōnagon by Kikuchi Yosai
The Pillow Book (枕草子) is an absolutely outstanding work by Sei Shōnagon (清少納言), a Japanese writer and court lady who served Empress Teishi during the Heian period of Japanese history (Shōnagon lived from c. 966–1017-25). The genre of the book is known as "zuihitsu" (随筆), which relates to personal essays, a perfect of example of which would be The Pillow Book. It's like a diary, but it's more a series of observations, some obviously pertinent (an event, for example, duly recorded), some less so: Sei Shōnagon simply writes a list of things she likes or dislikes.

The opening of the book is famous:
1. In Spring It Is the Dawn
In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.
In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too, as the fireflies flit to and fro, and even when it rains, how beautiful it is!
In autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sinks close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nest in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild geese, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one's heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects.
In winter the early mornings. It is beautiful indeed when snow has fallen during the night, but splendid too when the ground is white with frost; or even when there is no snow or frost, but it is simply very cold and the attendants hurry from room to room stirring up the fires and bringing charcoal, how well this fits the season's mood! But as noon approaches and the cold wears off, no one bothers to keep the braziers alight, and soon nothing remains but piles of white ashes.
From here come a series of essays and observations, some 185 of them, on a variety of subjects. As I say, she writes on things she likes, such as the first day of the first month, the Kamo Festival, blossom, hollyhocks, finding "a large number of tales that one has not read before", beautiful paper, and many other little details. Then there are depressing things, hateful things, elegant things, unsuitable things, rare things, annoying things, embarrassing things, distressing things, dirty ink stones, and the feeling of being disliked. Sei Shōnagon also records gossip, such as that under the title "Masahiro Really Is a Laughing-Stock", then things that should be large, things that should be small, things worth seeing. And, intertwined, there are some stunning nature notes. This is my favourite:
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 impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.
It is an eclectic collection of things and moments that moved Sei Shōnagon to write. She an interesting woman, above all else a keen observer, also somewhat of a snob, and one gets the impression she is most elegant. The sheer beauty of it, and the careful accuracy of her writing makes this a very moving read. I read it over a few days, but I think it's a book I'll always keep to hand and dip into. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon is one of my favourite reads of 2017.


  1. wonderful and quite Haikuesque... if you're ever curious about zen or haiku, R.h. Blyth's books are among the best i've read...

  2. An interesting choice! I'm so classic westernized that it's helpful to get some eastern recommendations. They are usually pleasant surprises! :-)

    1. Agreed :) I'm not even classic westernised, just classics anglicised! The odd non-English work is Zola, usually! It's good to get out there and read beyond old England :)


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