How AA's Big Book Changes Lives, Promotes Sobriety

August 21, 2012

By Bob Gaydos

It is one of the best-selling and most influential books of all-time, with more than 30 million copies having been sold and millions of lives changed by what is contained on its pages. Yet it is not exaggeration to suggest that many of its readers don't know the actual name of the book.

It is known, proudly and even reverentially, by most who have read it as the Big Book. Officially, the book's title is "Alcoholics Anonymous," the same as the famous 12-step program for treating alcoholism (and other addictions) described within its covers. The Big Book received more recognition for its influence recently when the Library of Congress included it on a list of "Books That Shaped America."

There are 88 books on this list, which ranges from Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" to Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Tarzan the Ape Man." The common factor among all 88, according to the Librarian of Congress' James H. Billington, is that "they shaped Americans' views of their world and the world's views of America."

While it may not be for everyone, the Big Book has certainly shaped people's views and lives. Since it was first published in 1939, it has been the textbook, if you will, of how to get and stay sober, for millions around the world.

The authors of the Big Book are Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the founders of AA. But they had plenty of help from some of the original 100 AA members whose stories were included in the first edition.

Religious influences

One could say the Big Book is a classic example of what it preaches. Much of the recovery program contained is taken from the Oxford Group, a Christian fellowship that emphasized self-examination, making amends and working with others. (Wilson and Smith both were members of the Oxford Group for significant periods.)

But the Oxford Group's heavy religious emphasis did not sit well with many of the other drunks who were early members of AA. As a result, most references to "God" were eliminated or changed to a "Higher Power of your understanding." Editing also changed the preachy "you" to the inclusive "we" in describing how alcoholics got sober.

There's a significant local angle to this story. When it came time to publish the book, Wilson and the others chose the Cornwall Press, a now-defunct printing operation in Cornwall. Because they were going to charge $3.50 for the relatively short book, they wanted it to look impressive, so they used thick paper and the widest possible margins. Hence, the "Big Book" nickname. Subsequent printings were smaller in size, but the name stuck.

The first press run was for 4,800 copies, with the promise from the printers that more would be printed when the first copies were sold. But even those original copies were in limbo as the printer refused to release any books until they were paid for. Although it was printed in the winter of 1939, only a few copies were paid for at the time. The significant release came in early 1940.

Today, with inflation, "Alcoholics Anonymous" sells for around $8-$10, but many AA groups simply give copies to new members, continuing to spread its message.

Thoughts on the Big Book

What do current members of AA think about the Big Book? A sampling of recent comments:

-- "When I first read it, I had to say, '(Expletive!) I'm an alcoholic. How did they know?'"
-- "I used to walk around with the Big Book (in early sobriety) like a protective shield."
-- "In many ways it's like the bible for alcoholics. It provides direction and order."
-- "Think about the impact. One person reads it and passes it on to others for more than 30 million."
-- "It gave me a guide for living, far beyond just not drinking."
-- "Simple rules for broken people."

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