William Davies King | Essays

Collections of Nothing

Collections of Nothing, detail of cover, design by Jill Shimabukuro

Part personal memoir, part laundry list, and all of it enriched by extraordinary wit and honesty, William Davies King's new book proves that you don't have to be a designer to write like one. Essential reading for collectors and the people who love (and tolerate) them. — The Editors.

At first, assembling the collection was just a matter of rounding up every label in my life, but I soon found my life itself was changed. When I went to the store for supplies, I scouted for new and edgy labels. Sometimes I made a conscious choice to pay more (or less) for a product simply because I wanted a different label. Instead of remaining loyal to a brand, even one I had always used, I started exploring all the other brands, and the crunchy as well as the smooth; cinnamon as well as plain; small, medium, “convenient family,” and jumbo (inconvenient family). A collection that was initially “about my consumption” began to shape my consumption as I became a self-conscious collector. I was trying to form an autonomous world in my binders, and this had come to mean encompassing the world of labeled goods. Of course, having every label was impossible. I could not consume (or ingest) the world but only the portion of it for which I had appetite and cash.

Still, when I bought soup, I thought, I want all soup, and even if Progresso’s Hearty Bean does not agree with me, or Campbell’s Scotch Broth appeal, still I must have those labels. And I do have those labels, through several successive generations of labeling styles. My soup label holdings are now approaching eight hundred examples. Once the FDA mandated inclusion of nutritional information on all labels in 1990, I knew exactly how nourished I would be by the soup or sauce or sardine, but my collection was nourished by the label itself.

Campbell's Soup Can Label (2008), 9 cm. x 21 cm. NOT by Andy Warhol. Collection of William Davies King.

When I bought toothpaste, again, I wanted it all. I have had my teeth now whitened, now cavity-guarded, now peroxicared, with gel and regular, mint, herbal mint, and “original,” by Crest, Colgate, and a number of other dentifriciers. I’ve been promised “rejuvenating effects,” “fresh confidence,” “total protection,” and other too-marvelous fantasies. Would my teeth look better if I had stuck to the one best brand? Who knows? (I wish!) All I know is that I have a twenty-five-year array of toothpaste packaging (120 different boxes), but hardly a complete history. I buy toothpaste maybe four times a year, and I have not always been the one to make the purchase. Sometimes, when my motivation is low, I use the same old brand and eventually throw the duplicate box away. But other times I’ll think, Why not Close-Up or Stripe or Tom’s? A store around the corner from me now sells toothpaste costing five or six dollars a tube, brands swimming upscale on the basis of their herbal enhancements or organic conciliations. I don’t buy those, any more than I would an Eames chair or a Tiffany lamp. My collection fits me more exactly, ordinary but extreme.

Cereal is the category where I have adapted myself most radically to the product. I am at the mercy of the marketers when I stand before their tremendous array of overpriced grain. Any new flavor, shape, puzzle, movie tie-in, sports celebrity, free toy inside, or CD-ROM game included is likely to draw my eye and motivate a purchase. I make it a rule, though, never to discard the cereal (or any other product) unless it is truly vile, like a few chocolate and/or marshmallow cereals (e.g., Post Oreo O’s, rejected by me and my children alike) or a health cereal called Uncle Sam, which included whole flaxseed and promoted regular bowel movements. Mostly, though, when I buy, I eat.

Cereal boxes were my first literature. I spent virtually every morning of my childhood reading the box while ruminating on the cereal, long before I ever perused a morning newspaper. Cereal manufacturers have always strained to keep up the illusion that their puffing or flaking, sugaring or coloring, has enormously inflated the value of a handful of rice or corn. I once heard that it would be just about as nutritious to eat the Wheaties box as to eat the cereal, but the psychological boost of staring at a photo of the Massillon Tigers as you suck sugar through limp flakes should not be underestimated. It is the Breakfast of Champions, and I have always welcomed those heroes home. Still, if I ever lack for fiber, I have a supply.

I was surprised to discover a few years ago that Wheaties boxes have become part of the boom in sports memorabilia, and many of the older boxes have become precious. If I had my dad’s cereal boxes, my mother’s dolls, and a lunch box or two from my grade school years, I could summer in Gstaad, courtesy of those crazy collectors! Despite my best efforts to restrict my collecting to the worthless, some Total trash has accrued value. People have sent me articles about the prices paid for an original Shredded Wheat or the first Wheaties box featuring Michael Jordan (I think I might have that one). I’ve read about a collector who saves the entire cereal box, including the cereal, in special air-locked rooms. Most of the other collectors specialize in one brand or category of boxes. Some, I suspect, go to fanatical lengths to get rare items and fill out their collection. As for me, I just have the boxes from all the different sorts of cereal I have spooned up over the past two decades and a half. Of course, I am a fanatic (from Latin, inspired by a deity, frenzied, from fanum, temple) in my own way. It’s just that I am on the altar. My consumption is the point, or my reluctance to discard, and that has nothing to do with being a fan of Tiger Woods or the Chicago Bulls or needing every Star Trek relic or observing, socioculturally, how the word “sugar,” as in Sugar Smacks and Sugar Pops and Sugar Bear, completely disappeared from the marketing nomenclature around 1990.

A Web search also turns up collectors of candy wrappers, full sugar packets, and beef jerky wrappers depicting NASCAR drivers, but I have not yet located a collector of Philadelphia Cream Cheese boxes or Doritos bags. Honeycombs does not figure prominently on the Big Board, ditto Frosted Mini-Wheats and Maypo. Few have attended as closely as I have to the labeling of mushrooms (I have a whole binder for mushrooms, with more than fifty varieties) or the tagging of asparagus. Some corners of my collection are peculiar to my travels, like the tamarind candy labels from Oaxaca (Mexico also merits its own binder). McVittie’s biscuits, from London, are represented among all the other horse-feed cookies from Britain and the United States, but of them all are the most delicious.

Immense binders labeled “Candy,” “Candy 2,” “Candy Bar,” and “More Candy” attest to my sweet tooth. A relatively thin book, “Prepared Foods,” shows that I prefer to cook my food fresh and from basic ingredients rather than frozen or takeout. Soup is the exception. Andy Warhol brought forward the simple glory of a soup can, and that is a celebration I repeat in as complex a way as I can manage, including a frequent return to Tomato. I will eat soup often just to snag a new labeling gimmick, a subtitle (“Hearty Choice,” “Classic Recipes,” “Chunkier”), or an enhanced view of the steaming bowl.

I cut as wide a swath as I can through the field of consumer products. Since, after all, I am shopping at Albertson’s or Ralph’s, not a five-star restaurant, I can afford to exercise my market position freely, opting for the latest five-grain-plus-blueberry cereal rather than someone’s generic flake or, worse, the cereal that shows up naked and undocumented in plastic bags. My freedom meets itself in the mirror when I face the expansive limits of my imperial desire, and I balk at yet another new lentil soup because I know I cannot bear the flatulence.

At this point, I estimate there are seventeen to eighteen thousand labels of all sorts in the collection, and it continues to grow daily. There are also about five hundred crown bottle caps (the metal kind with crinkly edges), also kept in binders, in plastic pages meant to hold photographic slides. I recently discovered that there are other bottle cap collectors out there, especially in Europe. One Polish lady has a Web site where you can browse her collection of about fourteen hundred caps while listening to “House of the Rising Sun.” I have several she does not have. She has many that I do not. But I have never bought a bottle cap as a collectible, nor traded with another collector. My collection reflects me and me alone, on the lookout, rampant.

It took me several years to find the bottle opener that does least damage to a bottle cap. It’s a double-pronged, curved-flange lifter, and it was to me a vital piece of equipment before the era of twist-tops, though in fact I get most of my bottle caps from the sidewalk, because I rarely drink beer. Again, the nothingness I cherish dovetails with the valuable goods discarded by others.

I love it all. I love you, for what you do not love, what you throw away. There’s a sad paradox in that. I love you for your lack of love for what I love.

I have to say that my pride in this label collection, and my determination to keep it up, are balanced by my annoyance with it and my sporadic resolve to give it up, even to throw it out. By now it has swollen to such proportions that no one would ever have the time or interest to explore it all. I have seen people—friends—visibly repelled by it, as if it were a monstrosity, a huge boil or wen, gruesomely fascinating but still disgusting. I wonder if those guys who save string on enormous balls have a similar experience, or the hoarders who save every newspaper, every piece of junk mail, every oily rag and unused bus transfer. I myself find it terribly unwieldy. Individual binders seem always to be on the verge of bursting, forcing me to decide how to split the contents into two binders. Division does not come easy to a man who craves wholeness.

Early on, I picked out of the trash at the Yale library six identical blue binders that had previously held lists of books and articles put on reserve for various courses. At a certain point the whole collection was contained in these binders. One was labeled “Canned Food,” another “Jar Food,” and so on. Now the collection comprises eighty-three binders of flat labels and fifty-one boxes of miscellaneous boxes, not including the cereal boxes, which are in such an array of containers that it is difficult to count. Those original six blue binders now house “Butter, Oil, Margarine,” “Fish, Meat,” “Tobacco,” “Spirits,” “Bags,” and “Fresh Food—Vegetables.” Actually, “Fish, Meat” has just split into “Fish” and “Meat,” the latter going into a new binder, but I have not yet rewritten the label. Their bindings were weak when I recovered them from the trash, and now they are worse. “Maintenance” is a perennial problem; infrastructure decays. Having ages.

It did not take long to realize that the earliest pages, which I had punched for the three-ring binders, were tearing. So I started placing the pages in plastic sheet protectors, but soon I discovered that these were not all of archival quality. Some get brittle or yellow or stick together. They tear, they crease, they feel…like plastic. Was that ever what I wanted? Where are the polyurethanes of yesteryear? In youth, we imagine that materials will last forever. In middle age, we experience the first tears and fraying at the edges. Colors go flat, edges fritter, and a whiff of acid hits the nose. Some collected things will obviously endure for decades, while others seem just minutes from the grave. Ephemera happens.

Another, even more oppressive problem is the taxonomical one. A label for canned peas clearly belong in the remaining “Canned Food” binder (from which I long ago extracted canned soup, canned fish, canned olives, canned tomatoes, canned beverages). And a label for fresh peas clearly belongs in “Fresh Food—Vegetables” (minus “Mushrooms” and “Fresh Tomatoes”). Frozen peas goes in “Frozen Food.” But where do dried peas go, or wasabi peas, a delicious snack? When I was a kid, I did not like peas in any form, and now I find myself regularly having to digest them twice, inside and out. I face this problem—the labeling of labels—each time I process new acquisitions. Does honey go in “Sweets” or “Basic Ingredients”? Are pretzels still in “Snack foods” (exclusive of “Potato Chips”), or should they go in a new, dedicated “Pretzels” binder? What about bread sticks? In “Crackers” or in “Baked Goods”? Aren’t they pretzel-like? Sometimes, it’s hard to recall the current system across the several months in between sorting sessions, and I have no Dewey Decimal System, no Excel database. The world offers food in sloppy profusion to the middle-class American consumer, and I know well how far short of Linnaeus I fall in arranging the genera and species of groceries.

Then, too, even within a category I fuss over the order. I like to have similar products together in the same sheet protector or opposite one another: all blueberry labels together, earlier and later variations of the South Alder Farms Bleuets label next to each other. But that means remembering just where particular blueberry labels are, among the various berries, and shifting labels around to insert a new one into the collection. Sometimes I let the pages pile up for half a year or more before I finally face the task of integrating them. Even then, at the end of a long evening, I will have a pile of problem labels that require special handling. Some have remained in the problem pile for years—my baggage.

The bigger the collection gets, the harder it is to keep. The bigger the collection gets, the more completely it represents me and my history, and the more I feel oppressed by it. The bigger the collection gets, the more extraordinary and “valuable” it is, and the more I mourn the thousands of hours spent assembling it. In the hole and on the peak, I love this collection and hate it, and I keep it because it expresses me, though rudely. It is a poor collection wishing it were rich. It is a celebration of material culture wrapped around a contempt for material culture. It is a burgeoning collection full of emptiness. It is a collection of nothing. That is my title, and I am its lord, its consumer and author and subject and victim.


This excerpt ©2008 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [16]

I find this immensly sad. Pick the hundred best lables, and set fire to the whole pile of nonsense, or make the world biggest collage.

Incredible! Thanks for sharing, in many ways.
James Brown

this book is a lot of nothing. i picked it up, read a few pages and set it down. it starts with him talking about stuff his ex wife dropped off at his house. no wonder. giant loser. a collector usually collects everything while neglecting the things closest to her or him.
Franklin McDonnell Jr.

Re: Junior McDonnell. Classic attention problem: cannot follow a line of discourse more than thirty seconds long. Try comic books.

Read most of Collections of Nothing over a couple of days under trees, on a rise overlooking a son’s swim meet in Dover, New Hampshire. An ironic setting, somehow, for ruminating on this book.

The book's own writing and rewriting seems to have been an attempt at redemption of collections and of the life that gave rise to them. It's angrier about itself (its author’s monstrous collections of objects and flaws, his imperfect life) than the comments here are likely to be; it also seeks some way for those collections and that life to be accepted, even loved.

A recent Observation or two (that on steampunk closest to hand) have tended to want to essentialize a topic, perhaps to make it more easily susceptible to some kind of moral pronouncement, up or down. This smart, acidic and rich book resists that.

"William Davies King's new book proves that you don't have to be a designer to write like one."

I don't understand this sentence. Is there a kind of writing that designers do? Is there a kind of design that writers do?
Should one aspire to designerly writing? (etc., etc!) But there certainly is a shape to the book’s argument with itself, its author, and its reader. I guess that’s where its design lies.
John McVey

I'm quite excited to read this book, having read the NYT book review earlier today, and am happy to see this extract here. The obsessive detail of the above reminds me of Nicholson Baker's ruminations on the world of objects in "The Mezzanine".

More than sadness, there is a sense of pathos in the writing, the authentic attempt to be a part of the world by collecting the objects of the world. Another extract from the book which I read suggests that the collecting is compensatory: "What I was missing was the middle ground, the female body, the something into which I could locate my nothing, the nothing into which I could stick my something." This thought is reminiscent of the main character in Nick Hornby's novel "High Fidelity", whose stunted emotional world allows him to communicate only through his record collection and his taxonomy of 'top five lists'.

And to Ruru, there are a number of comic books out there that would require much more than 30 seconds of a reader's attention. A medium doesn't define its intellectual worth or cultural value. King's writing testifies that even cereal boxes can captivate the imagination like literature.


Not having read the book, I shall only relate to this article. I see only sad obsession. Something that was fun & games escalated into the pathological. A burden. Something that will rule the trip to the shop. "Nevermind what I need to buy, there is a new label, never mind that I hate that soup - there is a new label".

It seems more a confession than anything.

I cannot see that cereal boxes "captivates imagination like literature". This is - observed from the outside - an exercise, an experiment to be intellectualised endlessly. But for the person in question, is his life.

Yes - pick the hundred best ones, keep them, and make a grand, greenhouse-gas bonfire of the rest.

("William Davies King's new book proves that you don't have to be a designer to write like one."
I agree with Mr. John McVey - this is one stupid sentence. What rubbish.)

As one of the editors responsible for this post, it bears saying that William Davies King's writing is teeming with rich observation: his descriptions are extraordinarily visual, and his capacity for critique at once keenly focused and wide open. Designers in their studios benefit from all of these qualities, as does the designer — or anyone, for that matter — who writes.
Jessica Helfand

re: "ruru",

this has nothing to do with attention span but with the way that the way a book is written, and what it is writing about. to pick up a book, any book, and want to be involved with it over the course of a few hours (or however much time is warranted) is a sort of burden for the mind, not just a casual throw-away of time like a new york times fiction suspense ludlum style bestseller.

your crude assumption that comic books are more in my line is laughable, not to insult comic books as entertainment, but hiding the fact that you in fact probably read "graphic novels", love the "satire" of dan clowes and other such trash and assume your own importance as a cultural critic, as opposed to a navel-gazing and most likely four eyed poindexter- very much similar to the person writing the book about nothing.

Franklin McDonnell Jr

Thanks to all for taking a look at the excerpt. The sadness that is there . . . is there. I yam what I yam, and the book is what it is. The only thing I would add is that anyone who does read the whole book will see that it describes an arc (it is a story), and the section that is excerpted here comes from a distinctly low point. In some clear ways I have moved on from there. The notion of making a collage, which some have suggested, has occurred to me, and you will be able to see some of my collage work in August at Trickhouse.com. Again, I appreciate your taking an interest, however one or two of you might benefit from a bowl of Maypo.
William Davies King

Franklin, I think using Daniel Clowes as an example of a "trashy" comic book artist is a little off the mark; I'm sure your detractor had something more in mind like Family Circus. I'm not entirely sure where I stand on Daniel's narratives, but I really don't think his work deserves to be slammed in this context.

It seems that the work itself is not really being slammed but rather it is a question of why anybody would want to read such a book, or any book, for that matter. I think "ruru" is probably an amateur reader, or is the one with the short attention span- or perhaps that of an overeager frosh with a collection of unread books by her or his bedside and scattered throughout the apartment (used to impress friends)

I believe that Family Circus is more a newspaper comic, not the sort of comic book that "ruru" suggests McDonnell to read- possibly The Incredible Hulk or some such would be more along the lines suggested. As for Clowes, well, the fact that he has hipster credibility with his cronies in the so-called "underground" (mostly overground for over a decade now) producing covers for the increasingly lowbow New Yorker- well, what can you say except "been there, done that"?

Clarence Frank

I admit it, I am a navel gazing four eyed poindexter. And I do read Dan Clowes, he is my hero. I am sorry I offended anyone. Now back to finding new friends on Facebook and MySpace.

It strikes me that a collection like this makes something we all think of as a temporary part of our lives into a permanent investment. Instead of getting the relief of throwing things away and decluttering, you're stuck with the consequences of commissioning labels and containers. It seems more honest, in a way, since they don't disappear from the world after they leave our lives.
Staci Steinberger

The online exhibition of my collage books has just come out and can be viewed at trickhouse.org (note: NOT dot com). It shows something of where my obsessive energy has gone in recent years.
William Davies King

Talking about new and edgy labels, this would be very interesting.

G.O.D. the name – GOD is the phonetic sound of The Cantonese slang “to live better”, because to live better is a basic human desire in Hong Kong, Asia and the world.
It is half the success of a brand and its concept is in its name.
A meaningful name in colloquial cantonese. A slightly controversial name in english.
But overall, a very memorable name that has been noticed worldwide.

While as:
DNM is inspired and created by the brand “Delay No More”
Because of the shopping experience at “Delay No Mall”
Along with award-winning lifestyle shop “GOD”.

Let me know what you think..... cheers... =)

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