I had to read exerpts from The Pillow Book for my Early Japan History class. Initially, I thought it would be dull and stuffy, but I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible the 1,000 old diary was. There is a lot of sass and satire in the few pages I read. A pillow book is a collection of observations, thoughts, and stories. This one has lists of "distressing," "depressing," and "elegant" things, most of which have a satirical bent. There are some fables and allegories, such as one about a dog that was banished from the palace due to a misunderstanding, is mistreated, and then comes back and eventually recovers from his trauma and recognizes his mistress, The Empress, and another story about a rude old woman who ignores the kind things the royalty has done for her. There's also a few instances where Shonagon gently pokes fun at gender relations, when a woman gets the better of a Fujiwara courtier by flawlessly memorizing a number of prestigious Chinese poems. Lastly, she also wryly makes fun of religion in an exerpt where she states that "A Preacher Ought to Be Good-Looking." She states that the better looking the preacher, the more people attend the services and the more pious they act. She also comments on the flirting and excuse for courtship church provides.
The Pillow Book, while personal, often provides many insights to Heian culture, and thus it's a useful piece of literature. We had to read excerpts from The Tale of the Genji, another important work written by a woman during the same time period, but I found it unbearably dull. In some ways, The Pillow Book is almost like a 1,000 blog, except it's wittier than most of the blogs out there today.