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Unbinding The Pillow Book

The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic

Gergana Ivanova

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Columbia University Press
06 April 2021
An eleventh-century classic, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon 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 Shonagon, 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.
By:  
Imprint:   Columbia University Press
Country of Publication:   United States
Dimensions:   Height: 229mm,  Width: 152mm, 
ISBN:   9780231187992
ISBN 10:   0231187998
Pages:   240
Publication Date:  
Audience:   Professional and scholarly ,  Undergraduate
Format:   Paperback
Publisher's Status:   Active

Gergana Ivanova is associate professor of Japanese literature and culture at the University of Cincinnati.

Reviews for Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic

[A] significant work. . . The only full account in English of The Pillow Book's changing reception. . . . Ivanova's Unbinding The Pillow Book is more a corrective to the misinformation widespread in the West. -- Claire Kohda Hazelton * Times Literary Supplement * Unbinding The Pillow Book is undoubtedly fascinating and well-constructed. -- Tony Malone * Tony's Reading List * An intelligent and informative study. -- Rivka Galchen * London Review of Books * This is a learned, provocative, and rewarding book. -- Peter Kornicki, Robinson College, Cambridge * Journal of Japanese Studies * The scope of the research underpinning this work is breathtaking, but even more impressive is the lucidity, concision, and accessibility of Ivanova's writing style. The story she tells is fascinating. * Choice * The fresh perspectives brought by Unbinding The Pillow Book will certainly keep Sei's narrative alive by leaving an invigorating mark on future scholarship on The Pillow Book. -- Joannah Peterson, University of Kentucky * Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature * Gergana Ivanova's Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic is a welcome addition to a small but growing body of scholarship focusing on the Benjaminian afterlives of Japanese literary classics . . . The book, which is extensively noted and comprises a comprehensive bibliography-constituting a quarter of the book-will surely be of immense help to both graduate students and scholars interested in literary reception across disciplines. -- Gouranga Charan PRADHAN * Japan Review: Journal of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies * Meticulously researched and persuasively argued, Unbinding The Pillow Book offers a dynamic portrait of one of the most important works of world literature and of the woman who wrote it more than a millennium ago. The Pillow Book has long been one of my favorite books; now, having read this engaging, wide-ranging exploration of the different meanings it has come to embody in everything from seventeenth-century commentaries to twenty-first-century popular culture, I see it as I have never seen it before. -- Michael Emmerich, University of California, Los Angeles Ivanova's work is a fascinating exploration of the reception, reproduction, and reimagination of Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book over time, focusing in particular on book history and publishing cultures of the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries. -- Keller Kimbrough, University of Colorado, Boulder In this exceptionally clear and clear-headed work, Ivanova tells us exactly how and why we are able to read The Pillow Book today. Tracing the ways in which the 'three commentaries' of the Edo period elevate the work to a genre (while also relegating that genre to the sidelines), she makes a firm case for a much overdue new reading. -- Linda H. Chance, University of Pennsylvania Unbinding The Pillow Book is an erudite and often entertaining guide to the persona of Sei Shonagon and her peripatetic text, The Pillow Book. Ivanova elucidates the complex reception of the text as an ongoing dialogue between the irretrievable past and the dynamic present. I cannot think of a better match between a scholar and her subject. It is a dazzling accomplishment. -- Paul Schalow, Rutgers University Thanks to [Ivanova], we now understand how we got the text and author that have seduced so many of us. * East Asian Publishing and Society *


  • Winner of Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2019

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