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The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

Written By
Chris Elkins, M.A.
This page features
6 Cited Research Articles

Millions of people have read The Big Book of AA to find instruction on how to recover from alcoholism. The book also includes stories and anecdotes that are designed to inspire individuals to pursue the fellowship of AA and follow the 12 Steps.

What Is The Big Book?

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, also referred to as Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, is a collection of texts used by members of the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship.

The book has undergone four revisions since William Wilson, also known as Bill W., originally wrote it with Dr. Bob Smith, more commonly known as Dr. Bob, in 1939. The fourth and most recent edition of The Big Book was published in 2001.

It features stories about how alcohol ruined peoples’ lives and how those people recovered from alcoholism. It also includes information about the disease of alcohol addiction, how it’s stigmatized and how individuals can overcome that stigma through fellowship.

The Big Book is most widely known for the 12 Steps listed in chapter four. The book’s authors describe the steps as a suggested program of recovery. The steps are the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Throughout the years, the steps have been adapted to aid individuals in other support groups.

The book is often read at AA meetings and referenced by members of AA.

Popular quotes from The Big Book include:

  • “It works — it really does.” (Page 88)
  • “First Things First. Live and Let Live. Easy Does It.” (Page 135)
  • “And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” (Page 417)

You can buy The Big Book from several national retailers or directly from the AA General Service Office. A free version of The Big Book is available online at the Alcoholics Anonymous website.

History of The Big Book

Bill W. and Dr. Bob began discussing the concept of The Big Book after they achieved sobriety. They had developed a program that helped 40 men stay sober, and they believed their system could help others.

In 1938, Bill W. began writing the book. It was published by Bill W. and Dr. Bob in 1939. The original version of The Big Book included Bill’s story, a description of alcoholism, the 12 Steps, a letter to agnostics and an outline for recovery. The fourth edition includes most of the original content.

Alcoholics Anonymous revised the book several times to ensure that it accurately represents people with alcohol use disorders across the world. Stories are included in the book to help individuals identify with others who have the disease of alcoholism and to encourage them to try the AA program.

Nearly 20 million copies of the third edition entered circulation during the next three decades.

By the time the second edition was published in 1955, about 300,000 copies of the first edition had been sold or distributed. The second edition added appendices, including the 12 traditions of AA and directions for contacting AA. Numerous stories were also added to the second edition, which reached more than 1.1 million people.

The third edition, which added new stories and removed others, was published in 1976. Nearly 20 million copies of that edition entered circulation during the next three decades.

The most recent version of The Big Book was published in 2001. Additions include the 12 concepts of world service, new stories and revisions to old stories. A few stories were also removed.

What’s in The Big Book?

The fourth edition of The Big Book includes four major sections: a preface and foreword, 11 main chapters, personal stories and appendices.

The preface and foreword describe the history of The Big Book and its role in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. After the foreword is a section called The Doctor’s Opinion, which details the observations and beliefs of Dr. William D. Silkworth.

Silkworth was an alcoholism researcher and treatment provider at the Towns Hospital in New York City. He treated Bill W. and contributed to the foundation upon which Alcoholics Anonymous was built. His letter was added to the first edition of The Big Book to add credibility.

The chapters of The Big Book include:

  1. Bill’s Story, which describes Bill W.’s addiction to alcohol and recovery from alcoholism.
  2. There Is a Solution, which explains AA’s approach to recovery.
  3. More About Alcoholism, which describes the struggles that most alcoholics face.
  4. We Agnostics, which describes the spiritual beliefs of AA.
  5. How It Works, which outlines the 12 Steps and how to follow them.
  6. Into Action, which describes steps five through 11.
  7. Working with Others, which describes step 12.
  8. To Wives, which explains how spouses can aid loved ones with alcoholism.
  9. The Family Afterward, which provides advice for families.
  10. To Employers, which provides guidance for those who employ people with alcoholism.
  11. A Vision for You, which describes how to live in recovery.

Three sections of personal stories, beginning with Dr. Bob’s story, follow the 11 chapters.

The three story sections are titled:

  1. Pioneers of A.A.
  2. They Stopped in Time
  3. They Lost Nearly All

The book concludes with seven appendices.

The Big Book’s appendices are titled:

  1. The A.A. Tradition
  2. Spiritual Experience
  3. The Medical View on A.A.
  4. The Lasker Award
  5. The Religious View on A.A.
  6. How to Get in Touch with A.A.
  7. The Twelve Concepts (Short Form)

Chapter five may be the most popular section of the book because it includes a list of the 12 Steps. A personal story on page 407 called Acceptance Was The Answer is also well-known among AA membership. Some members of AA never read from The Big Book. Others read it from cover to cover.

The 12 Promises of AA

The 12 promises of AA begin on page 83 of the fourth edition of The Big Book. The promises are an aspect of step nine, which involves making amends. They detail the impact that making amends will have on the person in recovery from alcoholism.

The 12 promises of AA are:

  1. If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.
  2. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
  3. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
  4. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.
  5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
  6. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
  7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
  8. Self-seeking will slip away.
  9. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
  10. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.
  11. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
  12. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

The promises are usually read at the end of each AA meeting. Many people experience the feelings described in the promises as they work step nine. Others experience the feelings, such as freedom, happiness and loss of fear, while they work other steps in the program.

The 12 Traditions of AA

The AA Tradition is found in the first appendix of The Big Book. A short form of the 12 traditions is listed on page 562, and a long form of the traditions is on pages 563-566.

The 12 Traditions of AA are:

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.
  2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  3. The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose — to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  6. An AA group ought never endorse, finance or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  7. Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  9. AA, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

The traditions serve as guidelines for how the organization should function. They are designed to ensure that individuals in recovery from alcoholism can find support from AA.

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Other Alcoholics Anonymous Literature

Alcoholics Anonymous has published hundreds of pieces of literature, including books, pamphlets, workbooks, guidelines and newsletters. Individual AA groups, intergroups and central offices often publish local newsletters and pamphlets with meeting times and local updates.

Popular AA books include:

  • “Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A.”
  • “As Bill Sees It,” a collection of writings by Bill W.
  • “Came to Believe,” which includes stories of how AA members experienced a spiritual awakening.
  • “Living Sober,” which provides examples of how members of AA stay sober.
  • “A.A. in Prison: Inmate to Inmate,” which features stories of individuals who joined AA while in prison.

Two highly popular publications among AA members include “Back to Basics” and “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” Both resources are widely used to help individuals understand AA and benefit from the 12 Steps.

“Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”

Bill W. wrote “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” It was published in 1953, about two years before the second edition of The Big Book. The book includes chapters dedicated to each step and tradition. In each chapter, Bill W. describes how a step or tradition applies to recovery. He also discusses how each step and tradition affects the fellowship of AA.

“Back to Basics”

Unlike other popular publications about AA, “Back to Basics” was not published, written or endorsed by AA’s General Service Office. An anonymous author who goes by Wally P. wrote “Back to Basics” to inspire others to follow the steps taken by AA’s founders. The book describes the origins of AA, how the program has changed over time and how AA members can simplify the 12-step program to ensure recovery.

The Big Book is a key resource for individuals in Alcoholics Anonymous. It was written for individuals with alcoholism and people who know alcoholics, such as friends, family members and co-workers. The book teaches people about alcoholism and how AA can help people recover from it.

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