Summary (from Goodreads):
Japan in the 10th century stood physically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world. Inside this bubble, a subtle and beautiful world was in operation, and its inhabitants were tied to the moment, having no interest in the future and disdain for the past. In a small diary, a young courtesan of the Heian period gives her account of the Japanese courts of the day, providing perspective on a unique time in Japanese history. In a place and time where poetry was as important as knowledge and beauty was highly revered, Sei Shōnagon's private writings give the reader a charming and intimate glimpse into a time of isolated innocence and pale beauty.
The Pillow Book is a collection of lists, random thoughts and specially moving events jotted down by the Japanese Lady Sei Shōnagon. The structure of the book was not exactly my favourite, since the little snippets were all over the place. They were not organised chronologically or thematically, and that made for a confusing reading experience at times. However, that is the only quibble I had with this book.
Sei had a very sharp mind, and her observations of 10th-century Japanese court are a wonderful and enjoyable glimpse to the past. Her style is very delicate, excepting the pieces about the working and middle classes, for whom she had a blind disregard. Her snobbery was often comical, as when she went on a pilgrimage to a temple and would not stand praying near commoners. Aesthetics was very important in the life of medieval Japanese aristocrats, and many rituals were followed to focus on the beauty of mundane things. She even talks about how a lover who leaves the bed in the morning too fast spoils the whole beauty of the affair. It was worse if he did not write the 'morning letter', which was a missive sent immediately after the man arrived home the next morning expressing his love and his marvel at the grace of his lover. Or if he wrote it with bad calligraphy or in the wrong paper. Letters and poetry were extremely important in the court, to the point were both abilities could make or destroy a career.
The Pillow Book has shown me how surprisingly liberal Japanese nobility was regarding sex and women rights, at least judging by our standards. It was common for a high rank woman to have several lovers, and her own palace. Working at the court meant a high degree of independence that could not be easily attained in the provinces, so girls were encouraged to serve the Empress at least for a short period of time, in order to be more worldly. I also enjoyed the customs and legends, but my favourite pieces were definitely the lists - lists of beautiful things, lists of things which make a clean impression versus things which make a dirty impression, lists of appropriate subjects for poetry, and many more. It amazed me, for its beauty and its oddity. I really enjoyed reading this book - it has been a refreshing read.