Some things never change.

I saw the movie Avatar last night. In a word: WOW.

I loved the visual lushness of the alien planet (but I have no idea why the two main characters fell in love — that Sully guy was such a drip) and I am 100% in favor of the tree hugging message of the film.

But one thing that Avatar gets wrong, like every science fiction movie,  is pillows. It seems that in the future nobody uses pillows. Even though the Nav’i (the blue people) have a humanoid body (with a head situated half-way between two shoulders), when they curl up to go to sleep at night in their hammocks they don’t use pillows.

That used to bother me about Star Trek, too. There were never pillows in the Sick Bay or in the crews’ quarters. Why is that? Are people supposed to evolve out of their need to be cozy?

I think not. I believe that the one thing that you can count on about the future or about aliens is that when they lay their heads down they’ll want a pillow beneath it.

Which brings me to my Reading Tip of the Day: The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (translated by Ivan Morris, 1991).

Pillow Book is a generic term for a kind of diary that women in ancient Japan kept, a loose collection of everyday notes and unsent letters that they kept in the drawer of their wooden pillows. [Because of their elaborate hairstyles, upper class Japanese, i.e. literate women used a wooden neck rest at night. I know, I know: there goes my whole human evolution/fluffy  pillow theory.]

Sei Shonagan wrote her Pillow Book a thousand years ago — she was born c. 965 and served as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress of Japan in the last decade of the 10th century. Her book is famous for being one of the few preserved Pillow Books from that era and for the beautiful quality of her prose: it still serves as a model of “linguistic purity” for Japanese school children.

Yet even in translation the singular voice of this opinionated, proud, artistic, and cranky lady comes through. Most of all, though, her book is a kick to read (even though Sei Shonagan did not keep her Pillow Book in chronological order) because it is an excellent guide to good journal writing.

I wrote my own book under the influence of Sei Shonagan — I learned to respect the stand-alone moments in my own life thanks to her example of “filling my notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial matter.” 

 And when I got stuck, found that my writing was too ordinary and boring and journalistic, I’d read some Pillow Book to jump start my imagination.

For example [she wrote]:

Things That Cannot Be Compared

Summer and winter, Night and day. Rain and sunshine. Youth and age. A person’s laughter and his anger. Black and white. Love and hatred. The little indigo plant and the great philodendron. Rain and mist.

Reading something like that is enough to knock me out of my left brain and get me thinking of a more inventive way to express myself.

My book is very much a pillow book, as you can tell from the illustration (above) that I thought, at one time, would make a good cover for it. To me, that’s the best kind of book there is: one that you read with a nice soft pillow under your head, a purring cat by your side.

One day soon, books might be obsolete. But pillows?  Never!

What’s in your Pillow Book?

P.S. I just read Toni’s comment — you can find her blog at:

6 comments to Some things never change.

  • Deborah

    Thank you for the Pillow Book recommendation. I’d heard of pillow books as a genre before but not this specific book. I was so happy to find that our library actually has a copy.

    I had just been thinking about how I like books that have the odd facts, etc. — Your book & Eduardo Galleano’s Book of Embraces are favorites — and how I needed to expand my own thinking by reading more books like that. So, thank you.

  • My pillow book is a small (3×3) journal covered in an Asian silk and containing whispers of poetry, fragments, soft voices that enter my head and want to speak …

    I would like to invite you to visit my blog today — did a post about art/visual and written journaling (hee) … this one has been simmering in me for over a year. I managed to be … uh … diplomatic. I’m so proud.

  • Janet

    Toni, what’s your blog address?

  • Toni, tell us, please.

  • UH-OH. Vivian supplied us with Toni’s address. ( I feel soooo stupid)

  • Jan @-->---

    Most interesting! I’ve never heard of pillow books, but I’m sure going to find the one you mentioned.

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