The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

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Picture source here.

It seemed to me precisely like a scene from those tales where the storyteller gives her imagination free reign and describes it all in the most extravagant terms. (p. 170)

The Pillow Book is a book after my own heart, although it was written centuries before I was born. It’s a book where things such as calligraphy are important, as well as the sleeves of a gown and how they hang; it describes a world where the proper response to a message can bring awe or laughter depending on what is required.

I wish that I had read some of Sei Shōnagon’s headings while I still taught in the elementary classroom. For that matter, I savor them as possible journal entries of my own, for while my answers may differ, the subjects require great thought. Consider these examples (some my favorite responses of hers are in the parentheses):

Dispiriting things – (“An ox keeper whose ox has died.”)

Infuriating things – (“A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on.” Or, “Some newcomer steps in and starts interfering and lecturing the old hands as if she knows it all.”)

Things that make you feel nostalgic – (“Things children use on doll play.” Or, “Last year’s summer fan.”)

Things that cannot be compared – (“The man you love and the same man once you’ve lost all feeling for him seem like two completely different people.”)

Things that look enjoyable – (“The conductor of the sacred kagura music.”)

Splendid things – (“Chinese brocade. Ornamental swords. Long, richly colored clusters of wisteria blossom hanging from a pine tree.”)

Things it’s frustrating and embarrassing to witness – (“Someone starts talking about another person, unaware that he’s sitting within earshot.”)

Startling and disconcerting things – (“The way you feel when an ornamental comb that you’re in the process of polishing happens to bump against something and suddenly snaps.”)

Things that are hard to say – (“The reply to a rather overawing person who’s sent you a gift.”)

Interspersed with these “list” kinds of entries are those describing the arrival of a famous person, or a place of scenery, or an object in nature.

She has a careful eye, this writer, under which very little passes unnoticed. The cumulative effect not only records the daily life of an era long past, but encourages me to take notice of ours as well.

How much goes unnoticed, let alone undocumented, as we bury ourselves in our phones, noses toward interactions that involve essentially no one else at all? Instead, I want to relish the sound of  imagined koto music while thinking of the world that Sei Shōnagon has recreated for us in her book, popping up from time to time to take notice of my own.

(And you? Have you had a chance to join us in this read-along for February? If so, please leave me a thought or two of how The Pillow Book struck you.)

3 thoughts on “The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon”

  1. You’ve made this book sound really really good, like something I might enjoy myself. Not sure if I will have time for this book during this challenge, but I’m making a mental note to keep a lookout for it.

    Like

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