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The Pillow Book

4.02  ·  Rating Details ·  4,062 Ratings  ·  342 Reviews
The classic portrayal of court life in tenth-century Japan

Written by the court gentlewoman Sei Shonagon, ostensibly for her own amusement, The Pillow Book offers a fascinating exploration of life among the nobility at the height of the Heian period, describing the exquisite pleasures of a confined world in which poetry, love, fashion, and whim dominated, while harsh real
Paperback, 416 pages
Published November 30th 2006 by Penguin Classics (first published 1002)
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Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all) Immeasurably. We learn what it was like to live as a member of the ruling clan at the court of Kyoto over 1000 years ago. Dress was paramount, as was…moreImmeasurably. We learn what it was like to live as a member of the ruling clan at the court of Kyoto over 1000 years ago. Dress was paramount, as was a knowledge of history, literature, religion and legend. But you need the footnotes, as Shonagon writes for people who are living with her and know that culture from the inside. I recommend Meredith McKinney's translation. You'll need two bookmarks, one for where you're reading and the other at the end notes that go with that point. It's well worth reading slowly, taking your time.(less)

Community Reviews

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Oct 10, 2010 Madeline rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"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. At one point, she was given some extra paper that had been lying around and decided to make a pillow book - a book kept by her bed, where she jotted down stories, memories, lists, and whatev
May 24, 2011 Jimmy rated it liked it
Shelves: classics, japan
"He spoke to me of Sei Shōnagon, a lady in waiting to Princess Sadako at the beginning of the 11th century, in the Heian period. Do we ever know where history is really made? Rulers ruled and used complicated strategies to fight one another. Real power was in the hands of a family of hereditary regents; the emperor's court had become nothing more than a place of intrigues and intellectual games. But by learning to draw a sort of melancholy comfort from the contemplation of the tiniest things thi ...more
A thousand years ago, one evening, a woman picked up her brush, drew it over an inkstone and wrote….

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!

She was a lady-in-waiting who served ten years in the court of a Heian Empress;
Khanh (the Grinch)
Lovely, amazing, brilliant book from a court lady with spectacular wit and humor. I really need to reread this again some day. When I have a week to spare.

I've never had to work so hard to read a book before. It's been years since I've read it, but this book took me days and days to read, mainly because of all the footnotes. And you HAVE to read the footnotes. Every entry had a footnote, and I had to constantly flip back and forth to read it in order to understand the context.

Further Reading
Note on the Translation

--The Pillow Book

Appendix 1 Places
Appendix 2 People and Where They Appear
Appendix 3 Time
Appendix 4 Glossary of General Terms
Appendix 5 Court Ranks, Titles and Bureaucracy
Appendix 6 Clothes and Colour Glossary

May 25, 2009 pearl rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: japan, favorites
Incredible, witty, beautiful prose. Shonagon Sei was a sarcastic and insightful woman who was unafraid to air out her own prejudices (staples among her lists of hated things: commoners, and exorcists who fall asleep on the job), as well as her love for all things beautiful and the mildly hilarious.

Many call this the earliest "blog" in history, but it's much more than that. It's a vivid, if not remarkable look into Heian court life through the eyes of a strong Japanese woman, a true individual o
Justin Evans
Apr 30, 2016 Justin Evans rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-etc, essays
It's always nice to find a classic that's entertaining; consider Don Quixote. It's even nicer when that classic can be read in ten minute increments just before bed, and I recommend that everyone do precisely that with The Pillow Book. There are plenty of novels out there, plenty of poetry collections, popular philosophy books, essay collections, lots of literary criticism, memoirs and so on. This combines all of those things, and does all of them well. I could quote at great length, but won't. ...more
Akemi G
Sei Shonagon is brilliant. She was a lady-in-waiting for Empress Teishi, the first empress of Emperor Ichijo. Ichijo loved her dearly, but when Teishi's father died prematurely due to infectious disease, his younger brother, Fujiwara no Michinaga, rose to power, and Michinaga pushed his daughter, Shoshi, as Ichijo's empress. Teishi stayed in His Majesty's palace (the emperor could have multiple wives and consorts anyway), but was distressed. Sei Shonagon tried to comfort Her Highness with her wi ...more
Наталия Янева
Неща, от които сърцето силно се разтуптява
Да храниш врабче.

Ако и вие като мен сте свързвали заглавието на тази книга с едноименния холивудски филм, където неясни калиграфски образци сластно се появяват върху голи тела, недейте. Своеобразният дневник, който представлява „Записки под възглавката“, е изпреден от вниманието към дребните неща и една съзерцателност, която носи духовно удоволствие и въодушевление.
Като придворна дама на японската императрица в края на 10-ти век Сей Шонагон пише предимно
Mar 25, 2015 umberto rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: journal, japan
I preferred this memoir-like book less than its contemporary one "The Gossamer Years" (Tuttle, 1964) translated by Edward Seidensticker. Translated by Arthur Waley, one of the great Orientalists, its recorded episodes have been fragmentary, presumably newly compiled under headings for more ease in reading as well as following the author’s train of thought.

This information related to “The Gossamer Years”, I think, should throw more light on our understanding:
Very little is known of the author out
Nov 06, 2013 Julie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I haven't finished this book yet, but have read a lot of it. I skip over some of the daily accounts in favor of the lists / observations / character sketches. I need to go back and fill in the blanks, but it might be awhile before I get to it. For now:

A "pillow book" is a collection of random notes, character sketches, lists, poems, and observations that the Japanese upper class during the Heian period might have kept in the drawers of their wooden pillows. Having an example of the pillow book g
Mariano Hortal
Publicado en

El libro de la almohada de Sei Shonagon. Intimismo milenario

Según leía el libro, dos textos brillaron con luz propia por lo que suponen una vez pasados más de mil años dese su publicación:
“Oscurece y casi no puedo seguir escribiendo y mi pincel está gastado. Sin embargo, yo quería agregar unas cosas antes de concluir.
Escribí estas notas en mi casa, cuando tenía mucho tiempo libre, y por lo tanto nadie se enteraba de lo que estaba haciendo. He
Jan 03, 2017 umberto rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: journal, japan
Impressively I found this translated book by Dr Ivan Morris interestingly enjoyable, informative and more in detail than the one by Dr Arthur Waley in the same title (Tuttle, 2011) since it totally comprises 185 topics followed by each translated text. Unfortunately, this book is not the complete translation because you have to read it in another one by another publisher, that is, Oxford University Press and Columbia University Press, 1967 (p. 16). In the meantime, I think we should be content w ...more
Jul 31, 2016 Gwern rated it liked it
While the descriptions of natural beauty are admirable, and some of the anecdotes of court life are interesting, much of the material is boring and Shonagon herself has ugly streaks of elitism in her outright contempt for anyone lower than herself (eg casually declaring that lower-class women should not even be allowed long or medium-length hair, an opinion which is certainly not 'delightful') and fawning admiration over anyone higher than her, particular the thoroughly unimpressive emperor/empr ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I didn't expect to like this. But Sei Shonagon was blogging centuries before blogs existed. Her writings in her pillow book vary from lists of unpleasant things to descriptions of fashions to funny stories from the Japanese court life. The tone is a mixture of self-righteousness and wonder, which is why I kept thinking of Harriet the Spy. I learned a lot about Japanese culture at the time, almost by accident. And the Morris translation is heavily footnoted.

"There's really something sad about a w
Nov 19, 2010 Laura rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Laura by: Bettie
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
This was very enjoyable to read, just pick it up and read a few entries a day, then read a few more the next day, there's no plot or anything to keep in mind. It's great being able to read something like this, what amused this woman, what she hated, what was happening at the court, which events she attended, lists of things she likes and dislikes, the whole book is like this, anecdotes, events and lists.

"Everything that cries in the night is wonderfull. With the exception of babies."
Jul 19, 2016 sanny rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Beautiful Things
Flashes of wit, impunity, tenderness. Contradictions and multiple facets of Sei's character. Unabashed honesty, pettiness and surprising piety.

Annoying Things
Intrusions to the actual entries from the translator, which usually ended as abruptly as they started.

The explanations were helpful, but the inconsistent way in which things were explained (some via footnotes, some directly slipped between the paragraphs) can be confusing. Definitely affected my enjoyment of reading this,
Maria Stancheva
Feb 12, 2013 Maria Stancheva rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Плавно и красиво потъване в живота на двора на японския император в началото на 11 век.
Описания на случки и начин на мислене, които първоначално стряскат със своята различност, а малко по-късно очароват и стават все по-разбираеми с всяка прочетена страница.
Сей Шонагон е една типична жена, било то и японка от свитата на японската императрица и като такава и позволява да се хвали и изтъква по един прекрасен начин,но винаги изискан, винаги.
Учудиха ме и нравите в самия двор - можеш дълги години д
Aug 03, 2008 Scott rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very fun way to get to know Heian Japanese culture if you don't already.

If you do, then Shōnagon is opinionated and contrary enough that she can really make the world come alive. Her opinions don't always match up to the popular ones at the time, and it's neat to start to recognize when that happens without referring to the endnotes.

The Ivan Morris translation is fully half appendices and notes, which really help in understanding what's going on and what everything means, but they're also skippa
May 13, 2007 Vy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history majors
If I didn't know any better, I'd think that I wrote this book while tripping on some crazy acid. Sei Shonagon is me, if I were inexplicably transported to the Heian Period of Japanese history. She's petty and judgemental and, once she figures out that someone's full of crap, does not hesitate to rip into them. The aching familiarity of her diary's tone brought me a lot closer to ancient history than I ever thought I'd get.

Hahaha, I totally just put myself down in this review.
Jun 24, 2013 Tess rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
lovely book -- these, often short entries, are the actual observations, and feelings of a woman writer from 11th century Japan. She was so much like me that I am startled -- she lets readers in on her observations of life: Hateful things, Shameful things, things that have lost their power, awkward things (these are a few titles of her entries). She's a wonderful cataloger of life both the exhilirating and the wretched.
Jun 08, 2016 Annie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review reads more like a review of Sei Shonagon as a person, which is accurate. The Pillow Book is Sei Shonagon, cut and bound into book form.

With that in mind... Sei.

You know how when you’re out, you meet someone who seems like a ditzy party girl—she’s super drunk and slutty and lots of fun, but doesn’t seem particularly intelligent?

And you know how most of the time that’s an accurate assessment, but sometimes you start talking to her and she ends up quoting Hegel at you, or tipsily poin
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)
Nov 01, 2015 Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all) rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those interested in japanese culture and history
A calming, fascinating and hugely enjoyable read. I didn't know what to expect when I started this, but what I got was immensely satisfying. This is a book to be sipped slowly, like a fine brandy. Lots of footnotes, lots of things to think about. A thousand years old and really not much has changed, though so much has changed so much.

Sei Shonagon was a lady in waiting (for lack of a better term) to the Empress in Kyoto, over a thousand years ago. The Pillow Book is very much like what used to be
Jovana Vesper
Između dame Šonagon i mene vremenski je jedanaest vekova. Mentalno između dame Šonagon i mene skoro nikakva udaljenost - da se tako "pesnički" izrazim. Da li se slažem sa svime što je napisala u ovom sitnom (u odnosu na originalnu količinu zapisa) skupu njenih misli i zapažanja? Ne.

Šonagon je kao nova drugarica koju upoznate i koja vam se svakako dopada, naročito jer je neko nov pa želite da ga "istražite", da se poigrate u razmeni mišljenja i stavova. U nečemu se razilazite u drugim stvarima s
Jan 09, 2009 marissa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who enjoy wit and sensuality in equal measure
24. It Is Really Too Hard
When it comes to a text like The Pillow Book, it is really too hard to convey all that one finds admirable about it in a mere review! There is simply far too much to choose from: should one discuss the playfulness of the layout and its novel use of lists interspersed with narrative, or should one address the unfair detractions of the text as frivolous and the author even more so, or should one delve into terribly complicated discourse about subjective reconfiguration of
Heian court Tumblr minus the social justice, of course. Sei Shinagon was a superlative snob. She was also a superlative delight, with a keen eye for detail and keener wit. She still is all that, in Meredith McKinney's translation.

P.S. Skipping the footnotes is a crime, and should not be done.

Some favorites:

"Everything that cries in the night is wonderful. With the exception, of course, of babies.”

"Refined and elegant things — A girl's over-robe of white over pale violet-grey. The eggs of the spo
Jemilah Magnusson
This is just an incredible thing to read. Sei Shonagon was a lady in waiting to the empress of Japan over 1000 years ago, and this is her journal. It is the most complete historical work found for that time period in Japan.

Shonagon reminds me a lot of Virginia Woolf, in that she is brilliant, funny, and totally classist. Her observations are lists of how she thinks people and things should be, and even though this was 1000 years ago in Japan, most of it is completely still relevant, and you can
Apr 17, 2008 Dina rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The diary and writings of a woman who was a member of the court of one of the Empresses of Japan during the Heian era. This was a time when people were popular because they could WRITE GOOD POETRY. And, well, other things too. But mostly the poetry. And women wore 934875639486 layers of clothing and regularly went on outings simply to hear the call of a particular bird or see the blossoms of a particular flower. A very different time, that. Though if you replace "bird" and "flower" with "boy ban ...more
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Goodreads Librari...: correct page number 2 16 Dec 06, 2015 03:12AM  
Best Translation/Edition 3 84 Nov 16, 2014 07:21AM  
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清少納言 in Japanese
Sei Shonagon (c. 966 -1017) was a Japanese author and a court lady who served the Empress Teishi (Sadako) around the year 1000 during the middle Heian period. She is best known as the author of "The Pillow Book" (枕草子 makura no sōshi).
More about Sei Shōnagon...

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“In life there are two things which are dependable. The pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of literature.” 48 likes
“Pleasing things: finding a large number of tales that one has not read before. Or acquiring the second volume of a tale whose first volume one has enjoyed. But often it is a disappointment.” 42 likes
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