The Pillow Book

The Diary of a Courtesan in Tenth Century Japan

By Sei Shōnagon

Cover of The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon

Setting & details: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Authenticity of Japanese characters & dialogue: N/A
Translation quality: N/A
Entertainment value: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
My recommendation:
This shockingly witty little volume is evidence that just because someone lived a thousand years ago doesn’t mean they weren’t a sharp commentator on human behavior that’s still hilarious today

Sei Shōnagon was a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial court in the late 900s, but her sharp wit and laughably true observations about her fellow human beings would make her at least a Twitter star*—if not a headliner on the stand-up stage—today.

This is a collection of bits: anecdotes, lists, observations and pithy opinions about the people who intersect with her life. They’re grouped under headings such as Hateful Things, Things Which Makes One’s Heart Beat Faster, Splendid Things, Things That Gain By Being Painted, Things Which Should Be Large and Oxen Should Have Very Small Foreheads.

Instead of blatting on about how surprisingly enjoyable this is to read, let me give you a taste of what’s inside:

Hateful Things

“One has been foolish enough to invite a man to spend the night in an unsuitable place—and then he starts snoring.”

“One has gone to bed and is about to doze off when a mosquito appears, announcing himself in a reedy voice. One can actually feel the wind made by his wings and, slight though it is, it is hateful in the extreme.”

“One is telling a story about old times when someone breaks in with a little detail that he happens to know, implying that one’s own version is inaccurate—”

Things That Should Be Large

“Priests. Fruit. Houses. Provision bags. Inksticks for inkstones.”

Awkward Things

“One has gone to a house and asked to see someone; but the wrong person appears, thinking it is he who is wanted; this is especially awkward if one has brought a present.”

Things That Have Lost Their Power

“A large boat that is high and dry in a creek at ebb tide.
A large tree that has blown down in a gale, and lies on its side with its roots in the air.
A man of no importance reprimanding an attendant.
The retreating figure of a sumo wrestler who has been defeated in a match.”

Embarrassing Things

“Lying awake at night, one says something to one’s companion, who simply goes on sleeping.”

I could go on, but that would rob you of the pleasure of reading The Pillow Book yourself! You can whip out and buy it right now, or wait for the Sep-Oct Japanagram to see if you won a copy. All subscribers are automatically entered to win—if you’re not among them yet, click this button and sign up to enter.

How I pick the book giveaway winners: On the last day of each month, I load all the email addresses of Japanagram subscribers into a random name picker on the Web and ask it to choose subscribers to match however many books I’m giving away that month. Then I publish the emails in the next day’s Japanagram (all emails obscured in a way so only the subscriber will be able to recognize it as their own, of course!)

*If you’d like to read more of Sei Shonagon’s meme-worthy sayings, here are Tweets from the Pillow Book, plus a couple of posts inspired by her wry sense of humor, Modern-Day Tweets from the Pillow Book, and Tweets from the Pillow Book, Pandemic Version.

 The Last Tea Bowl Thief was chosen as an Editor’s Pick for Best Mystery, Thriller & Suspense on Amazon

For three hundred years, a missing tea bowl passes from one fortune-seeker to the next, changing the lives of all who possess it…read more

“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist

Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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