AAWS Report on the Big Book

The following is a copy of a report (on the history of the Big Book) that was prepared by the AAWS staff, and circulated among the Conference, Area and District Literature Committee members, to give them some background as they approached their work in the (then proposed) 4th  Edition....

11 Jun 1997  History of Preparation and Publication of the First, Second and Third Editions of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous
Prepared by Doug R, AAWS. Staff

This is an attempt to review the history of the preparation for and publication of the First, Second and Third Editions of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous. The resources of the Archives, the Files Department, the Literature committee records, both Conference and Trustees, as well as memories of present and past staff members at the General Service Office are being used.

First Edition

On a borrowed $4,000 Alcoholics Anonymous was produced, by Works Publishing in 1939. This little company, formed by Bill and Dr. Bob and their non-alcoholic friends along with other founding members was taken over by the Alcoholic Foundation in 1940 when the shareholders and Charles B. Towns were aid off in full by the Foundation for their 'investments' in the project. Thus, our basic text has been held in trust by first, the Foundation, and now A. A.. World Services, Inc., for the Society of Alcoholics Anonymous for all time.

In the Foreword to the First Edition. we find the premise, the simple statement of purpose which remains the hub of unity for the Fellowship, "We of Alcoholics Anonymous are more than 100 men and women who have recovered from a seemingly helpless state of mind and body. To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book. " (Page iii, Foreword to the First Edition of Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous).

In a speech that Bill gave in Fort Worth about the writing of the book, he says, "I suppose the book yarn really started in the living room of Doc and Annie Smith. As you know, I landed there in the summer of '35, a little group caught hold.  I helped Smithy briefly with it and he went on to found the first A. A.. group in the world.  And, as with all new groups, it was nearly all failure, but now and then, somebody saw the light and there was progress.  Pampered, I got back to New York a little more experienced; a group started there, and by the time we got around to 1937, this thinking had leaped a little over into Cleveland, and began to move south into New York.  But, it was still, we thought in those years, flying blind, a flickering candle indeed, that might at any moment be snuffed out.  So, on this late fall afternoon in 1937, Smithy and I were talking together in his living room, Anne sitting there, when we began to count noses.  How many people had stayed dry; in Akron, in New York, maybe a few in Cleveland?  How many had stayed dry and for how long? And when we added up the total, it sure was a handful of, I don't know, 35, 40 maybe. But enough time had elapsed on enough really fatal cases of alcoholism, so that we grasped the importance of these small statistics. Bob and I saw for the first time that this thing was going to succeed. That God in his providence and mercy had thrown a new light into the dark coves where we and our kind had been and were still by the millions dwelling. I never can forget the elation and ecstasy that seized us both. And then we sat happily talking and reflecting. We reflected that well, a couple of score of drunks were sober but this had  taken three long years. There had been an immense amount of failure and a long time had been taken just to sober up the handful.  How could we transmit our message to them, and by what means ... how could this light be a reflection and transmitted without being distorted and garbled? ... 

And we touched on the book. The group conscience consisted of 18 men good and true ... and the good and true men, you could see right away, were damned skeptical about it all. Almost with one voice, they chorused, 'let's keep it simple - This is going to bring money into this thing, this is going to create a professional class. We'll all be ruined.' Well, I countered, That's a very good argument. Lots to what you say... but even within gunshot of this very house, alcoholics are dying like flies. And if this thing doesn't move any faster than it has in the last 3 years, it may be another 10 before it gets to the outskirts of Akron. How in God's name are we going to carry this message to others? We've got to take some kind of chance. We can't keep it so simple that it becomes anarchy and gets complicated. We can't keep it so simple that it won't propagate itself. And we've got to have a lot of money to do these things."

The history of the book project is well-documented in Bill's writings. It is a wonderful story which bears repeating again and again because of its significance to the fellowship. The principles which were employed by the early-timers and their friends will keep us in good stead as we travel the road to the Fourth Edition of the Big Book.

Second Edition

The progress through to production of the Second Edition of the Big Book is not as nearly as well-documented as the First Edition. We do have a letter from Bill to Bernard Smith in which he notes that he, himself, will do most of the revision. And in the Archives we can see a copy of the Big Book which includes Bill's notes for the Second Edition.

In June 14, 1954 letter to Bernard Smith, Bill wrote: "The story section of the Big Book is far more important than most of us think. It is our principle means of identifying with the reader outside of A. A..; it is the written equivalent of hearing speakers at an A. A.. meeting; 'it is our show window of results. To increase the power and variety of this display to the utmost should be, therefore, no routine or hurried job. The best will be none too good. The difference between 'good' and 'excellent' can be the difference between prolonged misery and recovery, between life and death, for the reader outside A. A.."

There were some cautions enumerated by Bill in considering the revision of the Big Book: "The main purpose of the revision is to bring the story section up to. date, to portray more adequately a cross section of those who have found help - the audience for the book is people who are coming to Alcoholics Anonymous now. Those who are here have already heard our stories. Since the audience for the book is likely to be newcomers, anything from the point of view of content or style that might offend or alienate those who are not familiar with the program should be carefully eliminated."

There were also some further interesting notes:
Basic Editorial Approaches:
1. The desire to reproduce realistic stories should not be  overemphasized to the extent of producing an unrealistic book. The stories are not important because they are tape-recorded, they are important because they have something to say about the people. who were helped. There should be no shrinking from the job of editing ruthlessly if such editing will preserve the, story, without the realism.
2. Profanity, even when mild, rarely contributes as much as it detracts.  It should be avoided
3. All minor geographical references should be avoided. (Names of cities, states, etc.)
4. The stories should be "organized" coherently, either in terms of chronology or of the specific points the individual is trying to make.
5. "Selling" or other "gimmicks -- editorial and otherwise --- should be avoided The story section is not a popular magazine. The appearance and approach should be straight forward, without frills.
6. Humor should stem from character of the storyteller and of the situations he describes, not be the result of "gags."
7. The end results of the editing should be that the stories will be suitable for reading aloud --at closed meetings etc. --- without embarrassment.

Bill then proceeded to redo the story section, setting it up in three parts*:

Section I. reproduction of eight of the original stories, plus four other "gray-beards" as he called them;
Section II., consisting of "a dozen stories about milder cases," "high bottom, we call them of which the present story section includes none."
Section III., where Bill included more low bottom stories selected from tape recordings which had been gathered.

Copies of letters which Bill sent out asking people whose stories seemed like a good possibility for the next edition, to sign a release and send it back to him as soon as possible "so we could get our printer going." A copy of the release letter is also enclosed. I found both fascinating in their warmth and ease of communication.

In one letter to an individual who was interested in sending his story to him, Bill writes, 'As you are probably aware the stories we need will be of the straight A. A.. variety; the kind which would be most effective with the beginner on our program. We are looking for straight personal narratives which describes the drinking history, how the newcomer arrived in Alcoholics Anonymous, how A. A.., affected him, and what A. A.. has since accomplished for him. For this purpose, we are not, of course, interested in the more advanced or specialized talks. The lecture or spread-eagle oratory type of talk, we can't very well use of this particular purpose.'

Another letter from Bill accompanied all the changes planned for the Second Edition of the A. A.. book and enumerates these suggested changes with the caveat "Do the new stories afford the best possible variety - do they cover drinking experiences as well as 22 histories could?" And, "Do any of the stories or titles contain material that might repel any considerable number of sensitive.. alcoholic readers? And if so, what changes are suggested?"

He was planning on sending a galley to the July trustees meeting the next month of 1953 and he continues with a reminder to the trustees, "It will be well to remember that the main purpose of the new story section is identification with the new man or woman alcoholic. So these stories are not necessarily about the very best A. A.. members. They were picked because we thought they packed a wallop."

Later that month Bill sends a letter to Ralph Bugli in which he describes his disappointment in the process which he had planned on using. Apparently, using tape recordings and transcribing those had been clumsy at best, and these stories had not communicated well in the written word. There were a lot of  '"pungent adjectives, slang and sometimes profanity. Some of the titles intensified this condition more. In a meeting such talk usually goes over because of the background against which it is given. But not so when the recordings are condensed into writing.

"In an A. A.. meeting the essential dignity and spirituality of a good member is evident, no matter what he says. His personality is there for all to see and feel. But a condensed tape does not show much of this, especially when the bulk of the tale consists of spectacular drinking episodes ... there isn't enough background showing what the speaker and its environment was before we drank. Neither is there too much evidence to show what he is like now - economically-, socially, spiritually. Hence, we see a horrible drunk, now sober, who is glad to be in A. A.. because of the fellowship, 24 hour plan, the Higher Power - or God, maybe." Bill continues, "Readers have to find in the story section individuals like themselves, economically, mentally and socially. 
Specially, is this true of women. If, in 22 stories, you discover only four or five folks of substance and education and the rest are assorted and spectacular drunks, then many readers can be repelled   The hard-core of A. A.., may be 50% consisting of people coming from substantial backgrounds."

Therefore it isn't enough to have a lot of categories. This 'respectable' category, in particular, has to bear a reasonable relation to the percentage of such people in A. A.. Otherwise, we've got another damaging distortion. The extreme low bottom, reading the present stories would surely be attracted. But would your friends and mine have been drawn to A. A.. by these 22 cases histories, snobbish, maybe.  Nevertheless, A. A.. experience shows that we have to identify with the  people on the basis on where they think they are - not where we think they ought to be."

The upshot of this was that half of the speakers had to be interviewed and the material had to be rewritten and a dozen more stories had to be collected. Bill was concerned with the people who had been working on the project and reminded the trustee that these workers should not be given responsibility for the delays. They were following his direction and the responsibility was mainly his because it had been his idea.. He winds up with the sentence, "Don't take any of this too seriously - I may still be a fuddy duddy!"

Third Edition

The documentation for the Third Edition is very different from that of the First and Second since our co-founder, Bill, had been immersed in both the preparation and publication of both of those Editions. As I mentioned before, the documentation on the First Edition can be found in letters, talks and writings of Bill W. and history on the Second Edition is a little more difficult to track. Along with Big Book in which Bill
made his notes for the Second Edition, there is much original correspondence to be seen of an archival nature.

The Third Edition, however, is almost totally documented through the reports of the Trustees' Literature Committee and the Conference Literature Committee. The first mention of a Third Edition I could uncover is found in a report of the Big Book Subcommittee dated February 4, 1974. Ralph Ahringer. an 'in town' member of the trustees' literature committee was the chair of the Big Book Subcommittee and over the next year and a half, he and members of the staff at GSO. worked on the project.

In his memo, Ralph reiterated Bill's comments regarding the purpose of revising the story section of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous. From February 1974 and throughout that year, the Big Book Subcommittee worked, and the stories cut from the Second Edition "They Stopped In Time" and from the Second Edition Section "They Nearly Lost It All" were identified fairly early. The possible replacements required a lot of study. The early list included a caution concerning dated expressions and also suggested that all dates that tended to make the stories seem like "ancient history" be omitted or edited, as Bill had done earlier.

In April of 1974 the Conference Literature Committee received an interim report on the work, and in July the Trustees' Literature Subcommittee report included far less detail concerning story names for the new edition. The going seemed to be getting rough at this point, with much work to be done on reviewing, the stories submitted. It also mentioned that they were now considering seven Indian stories, a prison story from the Grapevine, a navy story, a young person's story, as well as still looking for a retiree and another Black story. The subcommittee report noted that they were trying to meet a press deadline of December of 1974.

September of 1974 found the Big Book Subcommittee report documenting correspondence among the committee - staff and Ralph Ahringer. The November Trustees' Literature Committee heard in the report of the Big Book Subcommittee that the new-stories "will be sent to the Conference Literature Committee for approval and they will not make the current rerun of the book. It will make the next rerun deadline in 18 months."

By the tone of the communication, the project was simply considered an "update" to be included in the next "rerun" of the Big Book which happened every 18 months or so.

In February of 1975 we see Ralph reporting to the committee that the selection of stories was completed and they would be ready for the next 'rerun' of the book and would go to the printers in 12 months' time.  Copies of all of the selections were being mailed to the Trustees' and Conference Literature Committees for their comment and approval.

The secretary to the Trustees' Literature Committee and Conference Literature Committee enclosed two more stories with the Conference Literature Committee background material, at the last minute, for their comments and approval.

The staff members' August report noted that the Big Book was with the editor undergoing final editorial changes to go into the next printing of the Big Book and might be at the printers by the November meeting of the literature committee in 1975.

The February 1976 meeting of the Trustees Literature Committee found the statement: "The Big Book Third Edition will go to the printers soon. No changes have been made from page xxii through page 312. In Parts 2 and 3 seven stories have been deleted and 13 new stories have been added.  The Third Edition will be ready later this year."

The 26th General Service Conference Literature Committee received the report and recommended that the delegates take back to their areas a statement to the effect that the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, Third Edition, is not being changed and that only the stories have been updated and some new ones added.

After the publication and release of the Third Edition, at their August of 1976 meeting, the Trustees' Literature Committee heard the committee secretary report that AAWS. had received many letters with favorable comments about the Third Edition of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous. A press release dated June 1, 1976 briefly reviewed the history of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous and gave a short overview of the
Fellowship as well as inviting correspondence.

Subsequently, sharing from A. A.. members regarding "editorial chances" that had been made in the Foreword to the Second Edition of the Third Edition of the Big Book was received. As a result, 1978's General Service Conference produced an Advisory Action that, "In the next printing of Alcoholics Anonymous the Foreword to the Second Edition be included as it was originally published in the Second Edition. Further it was strongly recommended the delegates should be made aware of any changes under consideration in the book Alcoholics Anonymous prior to publication."

The 1989 Conference Literature Committee suggested distributing. of Big Book workshop questions to all delegates as part of the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. The responses were reviewed by the trustees and it was obvious that the areas participating had experience renewed interest in our Big Book.

Fourth Edition

The 1994 Trustees' Literature Committee reviewed requests for a Fourth Edition of the Big Book and suggested a letter be sent to all delegates seeking Fellowship input on a possible 4th Edition of the Big Book.

The 1995 General Service Conference recommended that, "The first 164 pages of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Preface, the Forewords, the Doctor's Opinion, Dr. Bob's Nightmare and the Appendices remain as is."

That same year the Conference Literature Committee reviewed the report on area. responses "Should There Be a Fourth Edition of the Big Book," and concluded there was no need to publish. a Fourth Edition of the Big Book at that time.

The idea of the Fourth Edition went back to the Trustees Literature Committee since there did seem to be some interest in a Fourth Edition, suggesting that they, the trustees, prepare an outline of the proposed content of a Fourth Edition for consideration at the next Conference.  This was seen by the 1996 Conference Literature Committee with a request on how to proceed concerning the topic of the Big Book questionnaire and outline. The ,Conference Literature Committee decided not to proceed with a questionnaire at that time.

The 1997 Conference Literature Committee received a recommendation from the Trustees' Literature Committee that a draft Fourth Edition of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, be developed and the Conference Literature Committee agreed and the General Service Conference recommended that:

A draft Fourth Edition of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous be developed and a progress report be brought to the 1998 Conference Literature Committee, keeping in mind the 1995 Advisory Action that: The first 164 pages of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Preface, the Forewords, 'The Doctor's Opinion, ' 'Dr. Bob's Nightmare, 'and the Appendices remain as is. A publication of stories dropped from the First, Second and Third Editions of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, be developed, and a progress report be brought to the 1998 Conference Literature Committee.

*see Chart of Stories, Big Book Alcoholics Anonymous, rev 7110197, STORIES-ALL
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Update: As of the April 2000 meeting of the General Service Conference, 1,222 stories had been submitted for possible inclusion in a Fourth Edition. Each story has been read at least three times by each member of the Literature Committee; the number has been "whittled down", and the current thinking is that a proposed draft of the Fourth Edition could be brought to the April 2001 General Service Conference, along with a draft of a "new" book containing all the stories that have been dropped from the first three editions. - See the most recent BOX 459 for more details.


Return to the A.A. Information Page

Return to the A.A. History Page

Return to the West Baltimore Home Group Page