Unbinding The Pillow Book
The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic
An eleventh-century classic, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon is frequently paired with The Tale of Genji as one of the most important works in the Japanese canon. Yet it has also been marginalized within Japanese literature for reasons including the gender of its author, the work’s complex textual history, and its thematic and stylistic depth. In Unbinding The Pillow Book, Gergana Ivanova offers a reception history of The Pillow Book and its author from the seventeenth century to the present that shows how various ideologies have influenced the text and shaped interactions among its different versions.
Ivanova examines how and why The Pillow Book has been read over the centuries, placing it in the multiple contexts in which it has been rewritten, including women’s education, literary scholarship, popular culture, “pleasure quarters,” and the formation of the modern nation-state. Drawing on scholarly commentaries, erotic parodies, instruction manuals for women, high school textbooks, and comic books, she considers its outsized role in ideas about Japanese women writers. Ultimately, Ivanova argues for engaging the work’s plurality in order to achieve a clearer understanding of The Pillow Book and the importance it has held for generations of readers, rather than limiting it to a definitive version or singular meaning. The first book-length study in English of the reception history of Sei Shōnagon, Unbinding The Pillow Book sheds new light on the construction of gender and sexuality, how women’s writing has been used to create readerships, and why ancient texts continue to play vibrant roles in contemporary cultural production.