The books of Wal-Mart

| October 2, 2006 | 14 Replies

This is a companion piece to “The Magazines of Wal-Mart.”  In that post (and now in this post) I put on my amateur anthropologist hat and explored the range of reading materials made available to consumers by America’s largest retailer. 

I traveled to a Wal-Mart superstore yesteday to check out the types of books for sale.  Why?  Because Wal-Mart serves as a culture filter to the many people who don’t take the extra effort to shop for books at bona fide book stores.  For those people who select their books from the limited offerings of Wal-Mart, here is the full range of written materials with which they are fertilizing their minds.  Here is how they prepare their minds to deal with important things such as parenthood, justice, the practices of other cultures, the meaning of life and how to vote. 

The book section of the St. Louis area Wal-Mart I visited consists of five large sections of shelves.  The three inside sections consist entirely of fiction; most of those titles are romance novels.  Here are some of the fiction titles you can buy at Wal-Mart:

romance novels.JPG

Such fiction works constitute 60% of the titles made available by Wal-Mart. 

If you are one of those people who wants to buy a “Best Seller,” you would need to check out the first section of book shelves (the left-most). But don’t expect to see any of the following books, each of which is currently ranked within the top 15 books on the New York Times list (these descriptions and rankings are from the NYT list):

  • THE GREATEST STORY EVER SOLD, by Frank Rich. A Times columnist attacks the Bush administration’s approach to message management.
  • STATE OF EMERGENCY, by Patrick J. Buchanan. The conservative commentator argues against unchecked immigration.
  • LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION, by Sam Harris. The author of ”The End of Faith” responds to Christians’ arguments in defense of their beliefs.
  • FREAKONOMICS, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. A maverick scholar applies economic thinking to everything from sumo wrestlers who cheat to legalized abortion and the falling crime rate. First Chapter
  • THE GOD DELUSION, by Richard Dawkins. An Oxford scientist asserts that belief in God is irrational and that religion has done great harm in the world.
  • AIR AMERICA: THE PLAYBOOK, by David Bender, Chuck D, Thom Hartmann et al. Essays, transcripts and interviews from ”a bunch of left-wing media types.”

Nor will you find any copies of Static, a wonderful new media criticism book by Amy and David Goodman, currently #22 on the NYT list.  You can purchase any of these NYT best sellers if you shop at walmart.com, the online version of Wal-Mart.  I suppose, though, that Wal-Mart has decided to keep most of the NYT non-fiction best sellers off their store shelves, lest they aggravate their God-fearing shoppers.  Or maybe there’s another reason, though I can’t fathom what it might be.  Why else wouldn’t you offer to sell nationally recognized best-sellers at your store?

What books would you actually find if you shopped for books in the Wal-Mart “Best Sellers” section?  There aren’t actually that many titles offered.  Six shelf spaces are occupied by Eldest.   What’s Eldest

The story follows the continued adventures of Eragon and his dragon Saphira, centering around their journey to the realm of the Elves in order to further Eragon’s training as a Dragon Rider.

The way they fill up the shelf space with Eldest, you’d think that there weren’t any other best sellers available. 

Two shelf spaces are dedicated to Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Culture Warrior, even though I don’t see O’Reilly’s book on the NYT bestsellers list.

 left side upper.JPG

Here’s a photo of the bottom of that same “Best Seller” section, books such as 1) Geometry Cliff Notes guide, 2) televangelist Joyce Meyer’s The Confident Woman, 3) the Grey’s Anatomy episode guide and 4) two books on Cardinal baseball.  “Best Sellers”?  Perhaps, when Wal-Mart refers to “Best Sellers,” it is not referring to the NYT’s best seller’s list.  Perhaps Wal-Mart is referring to best sellers based on the people who actually buy at Wal-Mart.  Circular logic? Yes. True? Yes, in the same non-evidentiary way we determine most political truths these days.

left side lower.JPG

As you can see, there’s not much writing of substance to be found on Wal-Mart’s “Best-Sellers” section.  Nor is there much writing that one might consider skeptical or questioning of authority.  This makes Wal-Mart the perfect place to shop for books, at least for those who want to continue believing in their current President.  Twp exceptions to this non-controversial rule were The DaVinci Code and a couple of Harry Potter books.  This proves that money occasionally trumps fundamentalist morality at Wal-Mart.

Moving on to the “Inspirational Center,” (the far right section) you can see that Joel Osteen gets lots of shelf space.  This is a nice marriage, of course: Osteen and Wal-Mart. It is hard to imagine any preacher more willing than Osteen to invite you to ignore the poor in order to go shopping for your own impulsive wants. Earthly heaven now and heavenly heaven later, all with a big friendly smile.

 Right side upper.JPG

If you look to the bottom of Wal-Mart’s “Inspirational Center,” you’ll find eleven types of Bibles or Bible-related books.  No copies of the Koran to be seen.  Nothing on comparative religion.  Nothing to ruffle the sheep.

I also found several copies of “Fundamentals of Building Construction” looking awfully out of place.  Or is this a book for inspired architects, I wondered? 

 right side lower.JPG

There are other books I haven’t commented upon Specifically, but I’ve provided photos covering each of the titles offered, other than the hundreds of romance novels. 

There weren’t any real surprises for me on this anthropological journey.  My field trip to Wal-Mart bascially substantiated my suspicions.  Here’s the bottom line. If you want to be well-rounded in your book-reading, don’t go to Wal-Mart.   What concerns me the most is that many Wal-Mart shoppers probably don’t realize A) the narrowness of the Wal-Mart book selection or B) the importance of testing their long-held assumptions by exposing themselves to challenging new ideas.

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Education, Politics, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (14)

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  1. Jennifer says:

    Wonderful expose! I too have noticed there is a majority of space devoted to the Harlequinesque trash, and an equally large section devoted to “inspirational” books. I never made the Olsteen connection, but you my friend have connected the dots perfectly! Well done!

  2. John says:

    After reading Friedman's "The World is Flat" it would seem that if WalMart has one key to its success, it is that it is extremely efficient in ordering exactly what it sells. Friedman argues that it is due to this fact that WalMart can undersell its competitiors, not just having a large market share and the economies that go with it. I trust that WalMart is selling exactly what people tend to buy, and I'll bet the titles differ in every state (if not every store). If you think only trailer trash shops at WalMart, then what surprises you about the prevalence of romance novels???

  3. Jennifer says:

    Well, I'm in Ohio and I could have taken those photos at the Walmart right here in town. So I don't think there is much variance. I do agree though, that trashy people will buy trashy books. Walmart is the devil, imo.

  4. thatedeguy says:

    Um… if you're looking for a "well-rounded" book selection, why would'nt you go to a book store? Ever been to a barnes and noble? I think about 98% of people are aware that they exist and as such, they realize the narrowness of walmart's selection and go to a bookstore if walmart doesn't have what they want. If they aren't sure what they want, they probably go to a bookstore as well.

  5. Mike Phillips says:

    Gosh, Oh golly Gee……. I can't buy the NYT best seller books.. Why should I be able to.. They are NOT a book store, but a store that has some books…. When I want a book on the current NYT best sellers list, I will head for Amazon.com and purchase it, or hit my library that (for a town of 3200) does a very good job of keeping us supplied with books on both sides of the aisle , so to speak. I love Jennifers "Trashy people……." OR the obverse could be that "Snooty, Full of themselves People will only buy at Barnes and Noble" Gheesh…. Give us red necks a break..

  6. Mike Phillips says:

    Mr Vieth says….

    """""""There weren’t any real surprises for me on this anthropological journey. My field trip to Wal-Mart bascially substantiated my suspicions. Here’s the bottom line. If you want to be well-rounded in your book-reading, don’t go to Wal-Mart. What concerns me the most is that many Wal-Mart shoppers probably don’t realize A) the narrowness of the Wal-Mart book selection or B) the importance of testing their long-held assumptions by exposing themselves to challenging new ideas."""""""

    I Love it when Intellectual folk determine my intelectual interests with out speaking to me or actually asking those who he downgrades why they are where they are…

    I very seldom if ever buy a book in walmart… I am retired and on a small budget, so my purchases are, for the most part, off of "HALF.COM" where I can get almost any book published in the known world for up to 95% off of retail price.. Granted they might be a year old by the time I get to them.. SO WHAT.. the information is still there…

    Secondly the nearest "BOOK STORE" to me is slightly over 65 miles away and I just don't get that direction too often… and of course, If I want to KNOW what is going on in the world of literature.. all I have to do is log onto a blog such as yours and get all (YOU DO READ ALL BOOKS DON"T YOU, NOT JUST THOSE THAT AGREE WITH YOUR POLITICAL BENT)..the information that I need.. NO need to read them, you will tell me what I need to learn.

    your remark that """""""What concerns me the most is that many Wal-Mart shoppers probably don’t realize A) the narrowness of the Wal-Mart book selection""""""" shows your ignorance of people…. Just because I am unable to shop neiman marcus does not mean I am ignorant…. The Wal-Mart nearest to me has one rack of books with (I would estimate) 200 Titles.. and I can just hear the shoppers as they whisper to each other.. "CAN YOU IMAGINE, THIS MANY BOOKS, WHO WOULD HAVE BELIEVED"

    I personally hate Wal-Mart…. but it is just amusing that one would take so much time and effort to debunk something that needed no debunking…..

    Mike

  7. Vic says:

    "I do agree though, that trashy people will buy trashy books".

    Jennifer, how terribly snobbish of you. One of the leading female writers of those "trashy books" is a woman by the name of Jackie Collins. You might be interested that all that trashy-ness that she's written has allowed her to be a part of a group called "Face The World Foundation". As a patron of FTWF Ms. Collins has contribuited not only money but talent and time. Below are just a few of the gifts this foundation/group has bestowed upon humanity.

    A Loving Spoonful believes that no one living with AIDS should live with hunger. Relying on over 170 volunteers and just 3 staff, their programs include:

    ‘A Fighting Chance’ provides infant formula to HIV+ mothers so that they won’t pass the virus to their baby through breast milk.

    Daily Meals delivers a week’s worth of frozen meals, along with fresh fruit and bread to clients who are homebound with AIDS.

    Easter’s Sunday cooks up two large group meals each month to fight the isolating effects of living with AIDS.

    Alternate Meals provides hot, high-protein/vitamin meals for clients who are essentially homeless in the Downtown Eastside.

    The Alzheimer Society

    Aunt Leah's Independent Lifeskills Society

    Avalon Recovery Society

    The list, as you might guess (or perhaps not with such a narrow view) is seemingly endless. Highbrow snobbery is quite unbecoming.

    Intellectual literature does not always equal genus as you have proven.

  8. charlotte says:

    I agree with Vic snobbery is unbecoming. There are many fine upstanding people who reads books from wal-mart, I would not dare call them trash. Meny are in white collar jobs.

    Books a thing of joy. If I could not read I think i'd die. When I see someone reading (anything) I'm glad for that person. Like I said,it's a joy to be able to read.

  9. Deb says:

    Having lived for years in a rural community that came to be dominated by Walmart, I think it is important what they carry on their bookshelves, and it does indeed act as a form of censorship. Walmart ran out nearly all the other stores in my community. Both other grocery stores closed. Most of the drug stores closed, the little bookstore moved and reopened as a part time operation on the owner's property. The town doesn't have a publically funded library even. Walmart pretty much has a monopoly over most things, including reading material. Yes, one could use the internet, provided you knew what you wanted to buy already or were willing to spend a lot or pay shipping. And as an avid reader, that is exactly what I did while I lived there (and am both pleased to say I donated 1,000 books to the privately funded public libary when I moved and ashamed of my rampant consumerism). So which came first, people who won't read anything but romance novels, bible stories, or fashion magazines or was it the place that limited people's reading to that. Walmart can stock their shelves the way they want, and we can try to refuse to buy there. But having to drive to the next county to buy groceries makes that hard. Is it too much to ask that sometimes Walmart do something that is good for the public rather than themselves? How about a 'superbook walmart'?

  10. AvidCritic says:

    Seriously? People are starving in the world and all we can talk about is the books at Walmart? This article gets a 1.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    AvidCritc: If people would read better books, they might care more about people starving elsewhere in the world. Almost nothing I saw at Walmart even recognized that there was any country other than the United States.

  12. charleys says:

    I never got the impression that the left-leaning intellectual set did their book shopping at Wal-Mart. At least I don't.

    Bill O'Reilly is probably a big seller with folks who might buy their books at Wal-Mart.

    Its been a while since I caught any of my right-wing born-again Christian acquaintances reading the NYT too…

    None the less, very interesting…

  13. Kc_Aiken says:

    I am just glad that people read. The people that read this article and the people who buy books and magazines from wal-mart, amazon.com , or from anywhere else. Literacy breeds culture, and American culture is vast and impressive. You only need too hear the lives of the ones around you to know how full lives here in America can and can't be. It's our choice, and the choice being made not to live, or that choice being made for you, are the only issues that truely concern me. Although it's good to distract with articles like this that lets me know that people are still at least thinking.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I'm not against reading, just like I'm not against voting or eating or exercising. We are doing ourselves a disfavor when we think that we are keeping ourselves widely informed when our reading material (for those who buy their books and magazines at Wal-Mart) has been drastically pre-filtered by the retail vender.

      That fact that one reads doesn't guarantee that one is well-informed. Someone who reads romance novels, car magazines, and sports stories is not as well prepared to participate in our political system, and not as generally knowledgeable, as someone who is more widely read.

      Just because one is reading/voting/eating/exercising doesn't mean that one is doing these things carefully or admirably. My post was a caveat that Wal-Mart was not offering its reader/shoppers a wide range of reading materials–it was heavily slanted to right wing politics.

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