The Big Book: 75 Years After Publication

A number of important books were published in 1939. Raymond Carver’s classic crime novel The Big Sleep hit bookshelves that year, as did John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. It’s likely that students of English literature are studying these books right now, attempting to determine why they were written and what meaning such an old book could have to a group of modern people. But there’s an arguably more important book that was published in that same year, and it has a completely different audience of avid readers.

That book was published with the title “Alcoholics Anonymous,” but it’s commonly known as “The Big Book.” An analysis from the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous suggests that the 30-millionth copy of this book was published in 2010, and in 2011, the book was placed on the TIME list of the 100 most influential books written in English. It’s a powerful piece, and learning more about it could help readers to understand how 12-Step philosophies help people to get, and stay, sober.

The Writing Process

The Big BookThe copyright application that accompanied this book in 1939 suggests that one person wrote this book: William G. Wilson. However, analysis by writers for PBS suggests that the book has “dozens” of authors, and most of these people declined to be publically associated with their work. Parsing the history of “Bill” could make that decision a little easier to understand.

Alcoholics Anonymous (or “AA”) is commonly ascribed to the meeting of two people with an alcohol problem: William Wilson (or “Bill”) and Bob Smith (“Bob”). Bill was new to the recovery process in 1935 and found himself in need of a drink while on a business trip. He called colleagues and asked for help from another newly recovered alcoholic, Bob. The two began to meet and discuss their condition together, and in time, they began to include other people in their meetings.

While the work done in these early meetings was certainly important, there was a great deal of stigma attached to issues of alcoholism in the 1930s. People who drank were considered somehow deficient or weak, and it wasn’t uncommon for afflicted people to lose their homes or their jobs due to their addictions.

Staying anonymous seemed like the safest way to discuss an addiction without losing everything, and it became a central tenant of the AA movement.

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In time, participants found that their meetings really did help them to get sober, and there was a great deal of interest in pulling more people into these meetings. But the people who participated also had jobs to attend to and families to feed, and they couldn’t travel all across the country or halfway around the world to attend to everyone who had a difficulty with drink. As a result, they worked to put all of their thoughts about what worked in the fight against addiction in one big book.

The authors stated their purpose for writing the book in the foreword:

“We, of Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book. For them, we hope these pages will prove so convincing that no further authentication will be necessary. We think this account of our experiences will help everyone to better understand the alcoholic. Many do not comprehend that the alcoholic is a very sick person. And besides, we are sure that our way of living has its advantages for all.”

They hoped that the book would help, and they included a series of chapters that outlined the steps people with alcoholism might need to take in order to heal, along with a section in which recovered alcoholics discussed their past troubles and important lessons. The book was born.


Book Excerpts

Much, if not all, of the Big Book is available online, so that even people who can’t afford to purchase a book can still read up on the lessons and stories that could help them to get sober. Often, the lessons from the book are also pulled out and published independently, which makes study easy.

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, make up the bulk of chapter five, helpfully entitled “How it Works.” These are the individual steps the founders felt that all people with addictions should take in order to be free of their difficulties, and the steps remain important lessons taught in addiction treatment facilities located around the world. They are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Individual stories aren’t so frequently quoted, but they are considered important for those who feel isolated and alone due to addiction. Someone who simply can’t gain control might be comforted to read these words from Bill’s story: “Liquor ceased to be a luxury; it became a necessity.” Even though this story is very old, and the details of life in the 1920s aren’t much like the details of today, the desperation of this writer and the chances he was willing to take in order to drink really seem to speak to any reader. Some people pull individual stories out into printable cards that they read when they need a little extra push in order to stay sober.

Early Reception

Modern readers are accustomed to self-help books and tell-all novels, so they might not be shocked by the words they read in the Big Book. But the early readers of this peculiar piece of literature didn’t really know what to make of it. A reviewer writing in the journal Social Progress in March of 1941 suggests that the book is “unusual,” but that it might appeal to people who work with those who have addictions. A similar review in 1939 in The New York Times suggests, “Most readers will pass this book by.” The content seemed just strange and unusual, and most reviewers weren’t sure that it would catch on or resonate with readers.

In some ways, they were right. Early sales of the book were quite slow, and criticisms of the book’s content were widespread. However, as addiction treatment providers began to incorporate the book into their teachings and people began to discuss their treatment for addiction openly, the book became a way of life for some people.

Also, the underlying opinions regarding alcoholism and addiction have changed dramatically since the 1930s. Now, the need to drink is considered a disease, not a form of weakness, so discussing the topic openly isn’t considered so very unusual. That change could make the Big Book less controversial, as it’s not covering a topic that’s considered as taboo as it once was.

Growing Prominence

It’s unclear when the Big Book became part of the central teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous. A recovered alcoholic writing for the website The Fix suggests that the book was present in meetings he attended in the 1980s, but when he returned to the fold in the late 1990s, the book was considered central. Entire meetings were devoted to specific chapters of the book, and people who participated in AA were expected to quote the book at length, particularly when they wanted to support a decision or an opinion.

That may be one person’s opinion, and others might suggest that the book has always been important, but it is true that modern users of AA consider the book to be absolutely vital to their recovery. It’s a common gift from a sponsor to a new member, and it’s frequently placed in a prominent place in a recovering addict’s home, so the pages can be accessible for study when a meeting is not.

Ease of Use

It’s possible that the culture has just changed since the 1930s, and modern readers enjoy reading self-help texts more than the readers of the last century. While it was unusual back then, it’s just part of life for now. But the Big Book might also be considered important due to the way it’s written, and the way it’s been updated.

One technical analysis of the book’s place in modern history suggests that the book is sacred to people in recovery. Just as people of a Christian tradition might read the Bible, people in recovery might look to the Big Book for inspiration and solace. Even so, the Big Book is considered a malleable, changeable document. New editions are released regularly in which some content is added and other content is amended or removed altogether. Stories are updated, examples change and the text seems to live and breathe with the culture. This might make the lessons seem yet more relevant, and that might contribute to the book’s ongoing place in addiction treatment lore.

Similarly, an analysis conducted by Iowa State University suggests that unlike some other texts that might be used in the medical field, the Big Book is written in accessible language. Most people who have the reading comprehension skills of a 7th grader can read the text without issue. That’s a remarkable achievement.

Common Complaints

The Big Book ComplaintsBut there are some people who dislike the text. For example, some readers find that the second half of the book, in which people discuss their addiction concerns and the way the program helped them to be “cultish.” They dislike the language used here, and they find it hard to believe that only the program could help people to recover. While the authors likely believed this message, some modern readers do not.

Similarly, some people who attend many AA meetings find it hard to reconcile the messages in the book with the messages they get in the meetings they attend. For example, they read in the book that “thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism.” That’s in the preface. But people who attend meetings might be told that they can’t recover from this condition, because it lasts for the rest of life. This might lead some people to believe that the book is out of date, or that it contains information that isn’t really accurate.

The Book at The Oaks at La Paloma

At The Oaks at La Paloma, we believe that the steps have the power to help people recover from addiction, and we offer a number of daily meetings in the 12-Step model to our clients who come to us for care. We also encourage our patients to read the Big Book in their own quiet time, and we ask them to discuss their thoughts about the book with their counselors in their individual therapy sessions. It’s important to note that we pair support group work with therapy, as we feel that this combination of peer help and mental health work is the best way to assist patients. Leaning only on AA might not be the right path for everyone, especially for people who have mental illnesses clouding their recovery. At our treatment programs, we offer integrated treatment that helps both the physical and psychological sides of this condition.

If you’d like to talk through our approach and find out more, we’d love to hear from you. Please call to speak with one of our admissions coordinators. We’d like to tell you more about how we can help.