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Sei Shonagon: The List-Maker

Sei Shonagon

The List-Maker

(966–1017 or 1025, Japan)

Long before McSweeney’s became a shining beacon of list-humor, Sei Shonagon was making some funny lists of her own.

So, who was Sei Shonagon?

She was a lady-in-waiting in the court of Empress Teishi.

Her light-hearted experiences, observations and anecdotes of court life make up her famous work, "The Pillow Book."

This is still considered one of the great classics of Japanese literature!

It’s not a book the way we think of a novel with a plot or characters, but more a collection of vignettes—sometimes musing, sometimes A-musing. (See what I did there?)

Although there was plenty of hardcore drama going on around court, Sei Shonagon chose to focus her pen on the lighter side of things. The result is a delightful read that feels oddly modern.

Writer Kris Kosaka explains in The Japan Times:

“The Pillow Book” retains a modern freshness, despite being written over 1,000 years ago, partly because it appeals to the modern trend of narrative voyeurism. It’s a behind-the-scenes peek into the life of a Heian court lady-in-waiting, Shonagon.

Like reality TV or modern vloggers, she’s the star of her own life. Her humorous jottings, acerbic wit and deft descriptions of the court capture a unique time and place alongside the universality of personal human experience."

Was she funny?

Yes, she was funny.

Donald Keene writes in the Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century that Sei was "a woman of remarkable talent and wit, and her book is perhaps the closest approach to high comedy in Japanese literature."

There’s much happening inside The Pillow Book, but I want to focus on its LISTS.

Our girl loved her lists! Some of her lists had just a few items, while others devolved into long paragraphs of description.

In Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic, Gergana Ivanova counts sixteen lists written by Sei Shonagon:

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Here are examples of just a few lists!

Here is "INFURIATING THINGS," translated by Meredith McKinney:

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Here is "ADORABLE THINGS," translated by Ivan Morris:

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Here's "HATEFUL THINGS," translated by Ivan Morris:

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The next time you read OR write a funny list on McSweeney's, spare a thought for the original list-maker extraordinaire, Sei Shonagon.

If you get a chance, read The Pillow Book! It's not too long. Here's a PDF of Ivan Morris's translation.

Or, you can browse through most of it on Google Books.

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