What did you make of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon?
"I have written in this book things that I have seen and thought, in the long idle hours spent at home, without ever dreaming that others would see it. Fearing that some of my foolish remarks could well strike others as excessive and objectionable, I did my best to keep it secret, but despite all my intentions I'm afraid it has come to light."
Genuine? Disingenuous? Calculating? We shall never know, but whatever the purpose of these writings or the intentions behind them, they have endured and been read for 1,000 years.
Part diary (and The Diary of a Provincial Lady came to mind on occasion), part series of still lifes, a commonplace book, a social history, its anecdotes akin to episodes of a soap opera, its gossipy comments not far from tweets at times, its lists much like those often seen on blogs; elsewhere the author's keen observation and appreciation of a scene make for entrancing reading, and as the translator Meredith McKinney says in her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, from "deep inside the moment of experience", she teaches us to see.
Caustic, snobbish, prone to extreme and sometimes crass juxtapositions, condemnatory, dogmatic, Sei Shōnagon lived in a rarefied world where appearance was everything, but if as she says above she set down her thoughts for herself alone, then she had no need to temper her words and moderate her feelings in consideration of others' sensibilities. Allowing her the scope that that intended privacy permits, what she gives us across the centuries in her "handbook of poetic references" is largely a thing of beauty. She finds rain "so unpoetic", so I part company with her there, but I smiled at her dislike of sloppy diction and language unbecoming to the speaker, and I admire her eye - and memory - for detail, and love her evident genuine delight in so many things, and that she finds it "fascinating that things like [the effect of dew on foliage] can utterly fail to delight others"! She is unique in her mindful attention to the slightest thing, and so while in some lights the book is, as the translator says, "a crazy quilt", it also has its own sense of order and identity.
Which parts - if any - caught your interest? Did you love her lists, enjoy her minute observations, become involved in her narratives? Did you warm to her enthusiasm and appreciation of beauty, or did you find her uncompromising attitudes uncongenial? Would this book prompt you to read more Japanese literature or discover more about Japanese culture, either in the present day or in the past? Are you tempted to begin a Pillow Book of your own - a diary or scrapbook of things which catch your attention and engage the senses?