Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'Collections of Nothing'

'Collections Of Nothing' Book Cover

Then it began, the first real collection of my adult life. One day I started to save the labels of all the food products I consumed — cereal, soup, candy, beer. I did not keep the cans or jars, only the paper or cellophane or plastic labels. Boxes and cartons I cut or dismantled. Everything had to lie flat, like a leaf in a book. Initially I glued each item to a sheet of paper, most of it reclaimed from some other use. Eventually, I decided to keep the boxes unbound, flattened but not cut or glued, so that they could be reassembled if the need ever arose. ("This is a national emergency. We require a Triscuits box from 1986, a complete box! Citizens who can fulfill this demand should report to...") I did not keep duplicates, but the smallest variations — new graphics, a new incentive deal or coupon, even a change in the quality or color of the printing — seemed interesting enough for me to preserve. Initially I kept the labels in my file cabinet, but soon began to punch holes and place the leaves in a binder. That way I was creating a "book," and eventually I would have a lot of these books. ("Of making many books there is no end," Ecclesiastes 12:12) Eventually, though I could not have said it at the time, I would have this book.

The genesis of this collection coincided with the end of parental subsidy. For the first time all my purchases were being made with money I had earned, and I can see now that I wanted to retain some token of my independence and expenditure. The small markets in New Haven, the ones within bicycle range (nothing "super" in sight), were mostly Italian-owned, mom-and-pop, and each provided a range of goods imported from Italy alongside the General Foods and American Home Products of my childhood: Kraft, Sani-Flush, Sara Lee, Mennen, and Pepperidge Farms. Although the imported goods were often beyond my price range, I enjoyed occasional ventures into Il Migliore Pear Tomatoes, Posillippo Rigatoni, and La Famiglia Cribari jug wine. These were walks in the wider world, beyond where I had ever been, and the labels were my snapshots. But I also toured Battle Creek, Michigan, via my breakfast cereal, Pittsburgh via my ketchup, and the ersatz Chinatown of La Choy. Camay, my mother's preferred bar of soap for us all, suddenly had no more claim to my wet body than Palmolive, Lux, Vel, or Zest. I approached labels differently now, with heightened respect and limitless curiosity. Instead of tearing them open, I inserted a finger along the seam and listened for soft severance at the glue points, the music of another label come to dada.

I got carried away by this new project and began riffling through trash bins for nice labels (by then I was living in a flat above one of those mom-and-pop stores), but I soon stopped that and more or less restricted myself to the record of my life and my consumerism. The bliss of processing also led me initially to paste in other things, like matchbook covers, junk mail, and paperback book covers, that I soon stopped collecting. I did keep the labels of some nonfood items, but the core of the collection has always been eating and drinking. And, for a while, smoking. And pet food and cat litter. And medicines. And hygienic products, like shampoo and deodorant, toilet paper, and my girlfriend's tampons. Lightbulbs. Sponges. Nails. And ... it is clear to me now that the discipline of the collection was virtually nonexistent. Partly I was driven by a desire to see my binders fill, first one, then two, then more. Within a month I was already a prodigious collector. Other people came to know of this and would save particularly nice wrappers for me, a carton from their favorite brand of microbrew from Scranton or a Darkie toothpaste box from Hong Kong. I never refused such a gift. Had they instead dumped the package after guzzling or brushing, I might have fished it out of their trash in any case.

Still, the core of the collection could be described as tokens of all that I had personally touched as a consumer, what I refer to briefly as labels. Whole marketing divisions labor over the question of how to situate this product in the public eye: with symmetry, asymmetry, blood red, royal purple, shocking pink; "New," "Improved," logo or no logo, slogan or blurb; rosy-cheeked child or elderly black man; photo of the product, watercolor of the impression, cartoon of the concept; coupon, clip-and-save, how-to pic; a little sex, a little sport, a joke, a jinx, a leering chicken, a smiley heylookeeme nota bene "over here, sailor" eye-grab. Printing presses have stamped ever more smashing colors, ever more gaudy graphics, ever more penetrating phraseology, onto cardboard, cellophane, paper, and PET, liminally and superliminally and subliminally enhanced by photos, foil, stickers, glitter, holograms, "magic pictures," celebrity signatures, games, contests, Hollywood tie-ins, free stuff, LPs, CDs, DVDs, MP3s, recipes, and scratch-and-sniff scents. As a result of these efforts, a certain chemical and physical and social and economical reaction took place when my hunger or thirst or need to blow my nose met this product, and that led to my purchase. Since packages generally conceal the thing itself, that reaction usually takes place right there on the surface of the label, in that swirl of color and connotation, where desire fuses with seduction, message with massage, hunger with lust. My psyche has been there, alert and rapacious, and the upshot has been that my hand reached out. Political economy begins with that grab.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

William Davies King