The Pillow Book

Sei Shonagon

There’s been a lot of attention to this ancient book, driven by the appearance of a new translation. I’ve bee reading the Meredith McKinney version, which was first published in 2006 from Penguin, and is accompanied by a very astute essay by the translator.
What is most striking for me about this book is the power of observation exhibited in Shonagon’s writing. The author, a 10th century lady of the court in what is now Kyoto has one of the most acute eyes for setting and for clothing a reader is likely to encounter, and she consistently conveys a sense of atmosphere that is infused with poetry.
There are no outright politics, such as we would recognize them, in this work, but there is something very particular occurring throughout that flows from the author’s own deep wellsprings of culture and intelligence. In what was a deeply unequal society, we have a wry and powerful statement about the capabilities and wit of women.

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