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Susan Campbell

Firstly, I must own up to having listened to The Pillow Book serialised (excellently) on Radio 4, but having heard it am very keen to get hold of a copy to read it.
The language in The Pillow Book seemed so fresh and modern that it was a while before I thoroughly took in that it was a very old book indeed. Shonagon was a woman of her time, or of any other time, in her foibles, strengths and weaknesses..
We are not always consistent or kindly, and neither was she. Her powers of observation and memory do put us to shame; probably in the days when papers and books were rarities for the rich, let alone in pre-digital ages, people did observe and remember more because they had few other means of keeping memories. Interesting thoughts...
For many years I've kept a 'family logbook' but without personal observations or descriptions. Maybe with inspiration from The Pillow Book, this is the time to begin!

Susie Vereker

I was fascinated by this. Have to confess I'd never heard of Sei Shonagon - her writing seems astonishingly sophisticated and modern for the era. It would be interesting to read the earlier translation and compare. I've read most of the introduction and appendices and some of the text. Look forward to reading more.
I'm glad I bought the paper rather than the Kindle version as it's obviously a book to dip in and out of.
Thanks, Cornflower, for suggesting this 'mediaeval blogger'.


I ordered my book via my mobile library and got the 1928 version translated by Arthur Waley. I didn't realise that there was the later translation! Therefore I had two voices, the 'school master' voice of Arthur himself and the 'cheer leader' voice of Sei Shonagon.

Arthur very clearly gives the detail of the Heian period during which this Makura no Soshi/Notebook of Stray Impressions was written, particularly the cultural atmosphere of the court of Emperor Ichyo and his consort Teishi. Sei was 11 years older than Teishi and as she came from a family of writers, appeared well read and could write beautifully, plus was quick witted and could give an elegant repartee,
I think she assumed a 'cheer leader' role amongst Teishi ladies. The blank books were given to her because of this and she filled them with her observations, during her period at the court. Roughly years 993 to 1011.

In themselves these vignettes give us a clear picture of Sei and the everyday life of these people. In the beginning she appeared more shy and unsure of herself but she obviously matured and talked of her lovers, how lovers should behave. She was impressed by outward appearances and loved descibing clothes. She did not have much knowledge of the roles that men played and it seemed that men wrote in Chinese and women in Japanese script. She was conscious of her class and position in the household and felt what was important was to be liked by everyone.

I suppose I felt sorry for her and apparently she ended life very unhappily. I am pleased that I read this book.

Dark Puss

Three translations! I read the "other" Penguin Classic which was translated by Ivan Morris.

Dark Puss

Two later translations! I read the "other" Penguin Classic which was translated by Ivan Morris.

Dark Puss

I'll try to answer the questions you posed:

No I didn't find the lists interesting.

Yes I very much admired her uncompromising nature and comments; whether those to whom they were often addressed did I am not so sure.She comes across as very enthusiastic and she certainly appreciates nature and particular forms of (fairly stylised) beauty. I liked her enthusiasm for flute players; something that is still very close to the heart of many modern Japanese people. They also dominate the world market in fine concert flutes. I was interested to see that a cat could attain the rank of nobility!

I don't need any prompting to read Japanese literature of C19, C20 and C21 - I'm not sure this book would have made me an rush towards it though.

I am interested in Japanese history and culture and this book certainly adds to my knowledge.

Overall I didn't find it easy to read; I rarely do with diaries, I would be quite keen to see how the most recent translation compares with Ivan Morris. I won't be keeping my own pillow book, however reading this and noting the translator, reminded me that I do have his famous Puzzle Book on my shelves.


Arthur talks about another translation Les Notes de l'Oreiller by K. MATSUO
And Steinilber-Oberlin of being a different quarter from his and therefore being complimentary.
Have you read The Tale of the Genji? Which book would you recommend? JENNY


I am also reading the Ivan Morris translation. I had vaguely heard of The Pillow Book before, but I thought it was fiction, I didn’t realize it was a memoir of sorts and I had no idea it was so old. I haven’t finished yet, but since there is no plot, I am in no hurry and am reading it in small doses like Susie.

I am not that keen on the lists of mountains and bodies of water, since I have no point of reference, but I do like the insight to a culture so far removed by both time and location from my own. And yet, there are so many times when Shonagon writes something that absolutely feels contemporary – plus ca change, I guess.

The edition I am reading has a whole second volume of notes, but even with this, I can’t make heads or tails of the complicated social hierarchy described. I think it is interesting that in this strict upper class structure where men and women were physically separated most of the time that affairs between men and women were seemingly encouraged and tolerated. It sort of reminds me of the licentious behavior of the aristocracy during the Restoration Period in England that I have read about. I am also fascinated by the influence of China on Japan that the notes reveal. I also keep thinking of the story of Cinderella which apparently originated in China. It seems fitting that such a story would come from a culture where so much of the feminine is hidden, where only a glimpse of a sleeve arouses speculation about the woman behind the screen. This is only the second Japanese book I have ever read, the first being the Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichiro. But I would like to read The Tale of the Geinji someday.

Dark Puss

Hello Jenny, sadly I have not yet read The Tale of the Genji though if I ever had one of those famous TBR lists that seem to be so popular it might well be upon it. I suspect that it would be my first choice of these two.


Although all Japanese people study a few extracts from The Pillow Book at high school, and they even can recite its famous opening ("In spring, the dawn - when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red..."), I guess very few of them have read this book from beginning to end. I was, of course, one of them who've read some bits at school but have never read it through. The original is written in the ancient Japanese and too difficult for me to read. I'm sure there are modern translations, but the Pillow Book is, to me and maybe many Japanese people, part of boring memories at school.

As for The Tale of Genji, I read it in modern Japanese several years ago and found it very entertaining. It's much more popular than the Pillow Book: it has been translated into modern Japanese by a number of famous authors including Junichiro Tanizaki. Its manga version was so popular when I was teenage.

So I hadn't thought that I would read the Pillow Book for pleasure in English! And I'm glad to have read it. I felt a little strange at first, reading the famous opening lines in English, but as I kept on reading it, I found that it was not a boring list of random thoughts but actually a quite entertaining book. I was fascinated with the details of everyday life at the court, admired Sei's sharp observation and laughed at her honest comments. I felt nostalgic and homesick with the descriptions of nature and seasonal beauty.

Thank you so much for choosing this book for CBG, I would've never read it if it hadn't been for this opportunity.


while I found the lists a little dull, it was a fascinating look into a time and place that is gone. I enjoyed Sei's observations, she definitely had her opinions. Her voice was coming through the ages, clear and strong. It is amazing that this document survived.

Barbara MacLeod

I really liked this book. Well, I would! I’m a ponderous reader who is always looking for new ways of looking at things. I read it (Penguin Classics 2006 edition) from cover to cover taking my time to look up the notes at the back (which is a third of the thickness of the book).

Where to start?! What is the book about? Well it is NOT what it sounds i.e. something out of Playboy magazine. Far from it; unlike the others who have posted so far, I regarded this book of one woman’s musings on what she finds delightful as being about Japanese aesthetics.

It really made me think about what we mean when we say something is “delightful”. Reading the book gave me a sort of mind-set based on her point-of-view. On a day-to day basis, in an very ordinary way, think of all the Things Which Are ... charming; elegant; beautiful; make you smile; satisfying; enchanting; give pleasure from an unexpected encounter; delight the eye, the ear etc.

Only on rare occasions does she look at life’s opposites e.g. “Things Which Irritate Me” sort of topics. (I laughed at here example of “Things Which Are Cocky” ... 3 year olds!)

The very end of the book explains exactly how she was handed sheaves of paper by Her Majesty and simply used them up will all her day to day notes - a bit like a diary or a blog. A better title (and less mis-leading) might have been Sei’s Book of Delights.

The translator, Meredith McKinney, makes the book come alive. Her writing isn’t just about translating Japanese text into English, but so much more, e.g. what is going on in the dialogue as to history and other Japanese poems that were known at the time.

The more I read of Sei’s ability to use words in speech or writing e.g. repartee, quickly composing a poem on her inkstone and also how she enjoyed high status in the courtly inner circle, the more it reminded me of Shakespearean plays where 2 actors banter back and forth using puns which the audience would understand and find delightful.

Susie Vereker

I sent another comment with a link to the Kyoto Times and an article by Meredith M, bt it didn't appear.

Dark Puss

Hi Susie, was it this one? DP

Susie Vereker

Yes, thanks vm, DP. Typepad seems to like your links but not mine!
Anyway I thought the article was interesting.

Dark Puss

It is indeed! Cornflower & I go back a long way which is perhaps an explanation for the link issue! :-)


Thank you for the link of the article by Meredith McKinney, Susie and DP. I enjoyed reading it and admired the translator's enthusiasm. It sounds ridiculous but thanks to her hard working, I was able to read one of the famous classics of my country!

Mr Cornflower

What a bizarre experience - it's what Edith Wharton might have written had she been born in Japan a thousand years ago, when Western literature was dominated by the beefy simplicities of Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon. Meredith McKinney's translation and critical apparatus are excellent and much needed guides to this exquisite but wholly unfamiliar world.

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