Ceremony & Beauty: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

Krishnan Venkatesh + Ron Wilson

What is it to write? What roles do ceremony, beauty, and material play in the act of writing? Not only is The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon an early classic of Japanese literature, written in the 10th century by a lady of the Heian-era court, it is also—500 years before Montaigne—the world’s first sustained portrayal of an individual self as she lives, thinks, and feels from day to day. A genre-bending mix of poems, lists, essays, and anecdotes, Shōnagon’s original work was composed on Empress-provided fine paper and expresses as much delight in the materials and physical activity of writing as in the human dramas and exquisite moments of courtly life. In this episode, Santa Fe host Krishnan Venkatesh and tutor Ron Wilson explore the power of the material conditions of writing—the handmade ink, the rare pens, the costly paper, the social culture of the highly insular court—in energizing and focusing the creator’s mind. They explore the writer’s love of writing as ceremonial beyond Shōnagon to Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and poet Susan Howe, writers for whom the material conditions of writing are essential for their work. From this arises a pressing contemporary question: what has been lost in today’s digital world, where few material limitations exist?

In this Episode

  • Ron Wilson
    Guest Ron Wilson

    Ron Wilson is a tutor at St. John’s College. This semester, he is translating Plato from Ancient Greek in freshman language, reading Dante in sophomore seminar, and engaging with English poetry in sophomore language.

  • Krishnan Venkatesh
    Host Krishnan Venkatesh

    Krishnan Venkatesh is a tutor at St. John’s College. This semester, he is reading Austen in junior seminar, translating Molière in junior language, and leading a Chinese tutorial in the Graduate Institute.

Featured Release

The power and beauty of Homer’s imagery in the Iliad is undeniable, and his scenes of battle often prompt vexing questions about ancient and modern virtues. Can killing and dying in war be beautiful? Is a just cause required for glory to be gained? Is war a courageous way of fulfilling human nature and, ultimately, of embracing the reality that death awaits us all? This episode, in which Annapolis host Louis Petrich and tutor Erica Beall delve into the dramatic contrasts that make Homer’s work powerful and war potentially beautiful, invites us to question our own modern perspectives on this ancient text.

Browse All Episodes

Executive Producers Welcome

Continuing the Conversation was funded through the philanthropy of donors to St. John’s College. If you’d like to give to the college’s Annual Fund, your gift will go to support the kinds of inquiry and conversation that comes to life at St. John’s College. It also frees up money for creative projects like this one, which brings great conversation and great books into homes across the world.


Subscribe for Updates

St. John’s College invites the community to awaken their intellect by engaging in mindful exploration. The college offers an array of online and in-person events, ranging from world-class concerts and art exhibitions to lectures and theater performances, as well as tutor-led seminars that provide lifelong learners opportunities to study the Great Books.

Sign up to learn about upcoming events.