(New Directions, 2020)
In the titular essay of Index Cards, the new collection by artist, filmmaker, and writer Moyra Davey, we are treated to a “tender ode to the newspaper” from Elizabeth Bowen’s 1949 novel, The Heat of the Day: the characters Connie and Louie “hoard the papers, savor their smells and textures, take pleasure in the brittle sounds of pages being turned and folded, empathize with their thinning bulk in war-rationed Britain and long to feed them.” The passage calls to me—it’s late April, the northeast is in lockdown, and I’ve been reading Index Cards on my computer, the publisher having been unable to mail a physical galley. Sitting on the couch, scrolling down the document, I crave the accidents of reading, the noise of it.
While many of the 15 texts in Index Cards—essays of fragmented and sustained prose, diaries, lists—have been available in print before, as separate editions or addenda to Davey’s photobooks and exhibition catalogues, they have never appeared together. The new book incorporates black-and-white reproductions of 26 of Davey’s photographs (embedded within essays, or else isolated in series), but the smaller format is designed with a reader, and less a viewer, in mind. The result is an affordable volume, sized for travel. The collection and publication of Davey’s essays in this form marks a new period in the life of these works—they are available for a different kind of circulation and thus a different form of readerly engagement, one that seems appropriate to Davey’s work. Her photographs and videos are full of paperbacks—dusty Gallimard editions, yellowing Groves—and the essays are, too: when Davey writes that she’s “cut [Violette Leduc] into three parts” and Edmund White’s “Genet in half to read on the subway,” we know that she is reading neither artbooks nor PDFs.
In addition to detailing the physical activity of reading, training a keen attention on the materiality of books, Davey’s essays conduct a phenomenology of reading. A mere two sentences into “Fifty Minutes,” the first essay in the collection, we come to this bracketed line: “[narrator forgets her lines, begins again from the top].” We are left to wonder, who is the narrator? And what lines are there to forget? Those familiar with Davey’s work will know that “Fifty Minutes” is a transcript of the eponymous 2006 video, but this goes unannounced in the book, and so we read the bracket as a feature of the text, along with this one in the next paragraph: “[long pause; narrator again forgets her lines; off-screen voice tells her to wait five seconds and start over].” This language of the theater and the cinema anoints the reader as the enactor of the text; she’s given a role. However she decides to interpret it, she leaves this first fragment and journeys into the book aware of herself reading.
This awareness is fostered both in Davey’s writing and her films: across her work, reading is among her most charismatic subjects. Indeed, all of Index Cards could be read as a meditation on reading and its relationship to labor (creative, domestic), illness, gender, history, and selfhood. The essays are rich with allusion (Genet, Walser, Woolf, Baldwin, countless others), though the references are handled without pretension—it amounts to an honest indexing of one reader’s very good library.
Among Davey’s extensive reading list, the personal and informal are privileged. She writes of the draw of “lists, diaries, notebooks, and letters” in “Notes on Photography & Accident”; reads Jane Bowles’s “deliriously long and repetitive reflections on the minutiae of her life” in “Index Cards”; maps the correspondence of Mary Wollstonecraft onto the lives of her sisters and a familial history of addiction in “Les Goddesses.” Through the diaristic texts of others, Davey reads herself: “Recorded in an almost unconscious manner, these passages allow us to insert ourselves into the scene, to feel interpolated by the text,” she explains in “The Problem of Reading,” invoking Roland Barthes, a lodestar for Index Cards. For Davey-the-reader, the diary entices for the possibility that it might supply, from the welter of banal detail, a moment of “accident,” like Barthes’s photographic punctum, a spark of identification or recognition through which the reader encounters themselves. For Davey-the-writer, the equation is more complicated.
While the relationship between writer and “narrator” is not entirely simple in Index Cards (“Fifty Minutes” ends with a note declaring it a work of autofiction), the reader does get a sense that Davey is engaging forthrightly with a history and a politics that is her own. Any tension between Davey and her narrator, herself, animates a central concern of the collection: disclosure.
We sense greatest access to the writer in diaristic texts like “One Year,” which condenses the passage of 12 months into two pages of personal detail. These texts invite the reader into not just the writer’s life, but her process—notes that surface in the diaries recur in more finalized form in other essays. This confers a sense of intimacy, but it comes at a price: for Davey, the “dross of the diary, the compulsion to scribble, the delusion that we can hold on to time” is followed closely by “the anxiety of being read, the fear of wounding, and, just as strong, the dread of being unmasked.” In “Transit of Venus,” she wonders, “Why would I want this stuff made public?” Perhaps the wager is best articulated in the epigraph of “One Year,” in a quote from Rainer Werner Fassbinder: “the more ‘honestly’ you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.”
The essays in Index Cards do concern us, for Davey’s candid narration of the self, and also for the uncanny way her reading reaches out to our own. In “Fifty Minutes,” Davey discusses reading the post-war Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg on the suggestion of Vivian Gornick who, in her 2001 essay “Reading in An Age of Uncertainty,” praised the unflinching quality of Ginzburg’s prose, noting that its clear-eyed witnessing was a source of solace after 9/11. In the April New Yorker of this year, Maggie Nelson wrote of a similar sentiment: in the early homebound days of the pandemic, she reached for a Ginzburg essay about collective precarity in times of crisis “for its stern and tender fellowship, which it delivered … across seventy-six years and 6,331 miles (much farther than six feet away).”
This confluence, this readerly synchronicity, is characteristic of Davey’s essays—she enacts it throughout Index Cards. Here, it reaches through Davey’s text to remind us that in an age of uncertainty, we read to historicize our uncertainty. This is engagement with a text as participation in what Davey terms the “great connective tissue that makes up our reading.” In reading Index Cards amid the pandemic, we historicize the act of reading in crisis, both personal and historical, and we are reminded: reading is how we are social at distance.