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The Pillow Book

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  6,420 ratings  ·  637 reviews
"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
Paperback, 419 pages
Published December 30th 1991 by Columbia University Press (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)
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all) Because Waley tended to see things in the court of Kyoto as he chose to see them. She was a lady-in-waiting at the court, but not a "courtesan"--and w…moreBecause Waley tended to see things in the court of Kyoto as he chose to see them. She was a lady-in-waiting at the court, but not a "courtesan"--and well he knew it. Shonagon was many things but she was not a "courtesan."(less)

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Adam Dalva
Aug 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This 10th century Japan private diary of a lady-in-the-court is one of the most extraordinary pieces of non-fiction I’ve ever read - through sweeping, exhaustive lists, Shōnagon, a gossip and a prankster, reveals both the universality of human life and the paticularities of her cloistered life in Japanese court.

A few of my favorite excerpts:

Hateful Things
- One is in a hurry to leave, but one's visitor keeps chattering away. If it is someone of no importance, one can get rid of him by saying, "Y
Oct 10, 2010 rated it really liked it
"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
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;
Michael Finocchiaro
Less interesting than its closest contemporary, The Tale of Genji, this is another interesting book about the intimate life of the Japanese imperial court during the Heian period (as Genji is as well). It is full of interesting anecdotes and pillow talk (thus the title), but in a less poetic style as Genji which for me remains the reference and the milestone.
Khanh, first of her name, mother of bunnies
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.

Mar 10, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: japan, classics
"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
Jan 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, japanese
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
May 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Karla Strand
See the full review at

The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is a fascinating look at Japanese court culture during the 11th century Heian period (794 to 1186).

While others may be more familiar with Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji as an example of classic Japanese literature of the time, I chose The Pillow Book instead – I always lean towards bucking the trend and I was intrigued by what I had read of Se
Jan 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: japan, journal, favorites
This famous 10th-century Japanese journal "The Pillow Book" (Penguin, 2006) by Sei Shonagon translated by Dr Meredith McKinney is a bit more descriptive than its predecessor "The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon" (Penguin, 1981) translated by Dr Ivan Morris as we can see to compare, tentatively, from the following extracted paragraphs:

[1]* In spring, the dawn -- when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple cloud float in the sky.
In summer, the night -- m
E. G.
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
Akemi G.
Aug 13, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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, his younger brother, Fujiwara no Michinaga, rose to power, and Michinaga pushed his daughter, Shoshi, as Ichijo's additional empress. Teishi stayed in His Majesty's palace (the emperor could have multiple consorts anyway), but was distressed. Sei Shonagon tried to comfort Her Highness with her wit, which eventually resul ...more
Feb 14, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: japan, journal
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
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
Bob Newman
May 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
1000 year old Courtesan Tells All (or almost all)

The Heian period in Japan, that lasted around 390 years, coming to an end in the 1180s, is one of the most interesting in world history. While daily life must have been a struggle as always, a bubble of court life grew up in Kyoto that produced art and literature among the best in the classical world. Within that bubble, the effete concentration on poetry, paper, perfume and parties gave rise to a society (court society and its connected politica
May 26, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: japan, journal
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
Justin Evans
Apr 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays, history-etc
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
“Everything that cries at night I find splendid, except for baby’s” - Sei Sonagon

This thousand year old book has a lot of still very relatable observations besides the one above. Sonagon also does not like people who are to assertive, certain coloured clothing, the embarrassment that comes from talking behind someones back (and that person actually overhearing) and off course: mosquitos.

The Pillowbook is kind of a diary, with decadent snippets of imperial court life intertwined with lists with
Sooooooooo good. This was one of the last books on my to-read list of classical Japanese prose/poetry, and I figured it would be a tedious non-fiction companion to Shikibu's Tale of Genji, but I guess I'm in the minority insofar as I think Genji is both overrated and overlong, while the Pillow Book is not the shallow court gossip that I'd been expecting, but rather a charmingly artful collection of belles lettres.

I was immediately reminded of the diary of Samuel Pepys -- both high-ranking funct
Apr 19, 2015 rated it liked it
I've never read a book quite like this one. It's not a "pick up and read in one sitting" kind of book. But it does provide an interesting lens into late 10th, early 11th century Heian Japan (told from the point of view of a gentle woman who tends to an Empress). ...more
Jan 26, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have wanted to read Sei Shōnagon's 'The Pillow Book' ever since I discovered it. I picked it up recently and read it slowly and finished reading it yesterday.

Sei Shōnagon lived around a thousand years back in the Japan of the Heian era. She served the Japanese empress of that time. One day someone got the empress a big bundle of paper as a gift and the empress gave it to Shōnagon, and Shōnagon decided to write on it, recounting anecdotes and sharing experiences and her thoughts on different t
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)
Oct 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Heidi Nemo
Jan 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
A window into the mind of a courtier from another time.
She's by turns sharply observant, competitive, emotionally self-absorbed, and incredibly aesthetically finely honed.

But simply as this--a diary, 1,000 years old--it is a valuable thing indeed.
Julie Ruble
May 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
What a marvellous tale of how Heian court life was. It was amazing how much I found myself relating to Shonagon even though her life was very very different than that of mine, let alone modern day society. Her lists and her style of writing have been somewhat inspiring (speaking as a writer) and have showed me how amazing the art of writing truly is and has always been. I can see why Aidan Chambers was inspired by the poems and the style of Shonagon's Pillow Book. ...more
Hal O'Brien
Apr 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Written at the turn of the 10th Century CE, Shonagon is easily the first blogger. Lists, streams of consciousness, the minutiae of everyday life, insights on the larger culture of the Heian period of Japan... It's all here. The West wouldn't see anything like it until Montaigne and Pepys. ...more
Apr 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I can’t decide if I’m more impressed by Shōnagon’s powers of observation or the fact that we are so much more similar in all these little ways to the people of the past than I could have imagined.
May 03, 2016 rated it it was ok
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,
Jul 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
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Goodreads Librari...: correct page number 2 21 Dec 06, 2015 03:12AM  
Best Translation/Edition 3 355 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).

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