The latest issue of About AA, A Newsletter for Professionals, is available at AA.org. One of the articles in this issue recounts the birth of the “Big Book” (as it is referred to), the growth of the editions, and finally the anticipated 75th Commemorative Edition.
A.A.’s ‘Basic Text’ Hits Another Milestone: 75 Years and Counting
The year was 1939. Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and Greta Garbo were the country’s pin-up queens. “There’s no place like home” and “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” were the best-known quotes from the most popular films released that year, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, which won the Oscar for Best Film. Germany invaded Poland, signaling the official start of World War II. The World’s Fair opened in New York City, featuring the theme, “Building for the World of Tomorrow,” with a buried time capsule not to be opened until the year 6939. Robert May, an employee of the Montgomery Ward department store, created the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a Christmas promotional gimmick. Batman made his comic book debut. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, was published. And the Yankees won the World Series.
But, to a hardy band of 100 or so alcoholics, trying against all odds to hold onto their sobriety, doubtless the most important thing to happen in 1939 for them and for the countless alcoholics to come, was the appearance, in print, of Alcoholics Anonymous, the book that bore the name of the society of recovering alcoholics it represented.
Codifying the Program
The desire of this group to write and publish a book of their own experiences came out of a recognition by A.A. co-founders Bill W and Dr. Bob S. that in order to keep the message of hope and recovery that they had developed intact and to effectively pass it on to other alcoholics who were waiting for some kind of help, they needed to codify what they and the early members had done and to explain the program in specific terms.
Bill W recalled how it all came about: “On a late fall afternoon in 1937, Smithy [Dr. Bob] and I were talking together in his living room.” By then, the groups in Akron and New York were firmly established. “But it was still flying blind — a flickering candle indeed, because it might at any minute be snuffed out. So we began counting noses. How many people had stayed dry in Akron, in New York, maybe a few in Cleveland? And when we added up that score, it was a handful, 35 to 40 maybe. But enough time had elapsed on enough really fatal cases of alcoholism that Bob and I foresaw for the first time that this thing was going to succeed.
“I can never forget the elation and ecstasy that seized us both. It had taken three years to sober up the handful, and there had been an immense amount of failure. How could this handful carry its message to all those who still didn’t know? Not all the drunks in the world could come to Akron or to New York. How could we transmit our message to them?” The two began mulling over the possibilities. “We’d have to get some kind of literature,” they concluded, as “Up to this moment, not a syllable of this program was in writing. It was a kind of word-of-mouth deal, with variations according to each man’s or woman’s standing….
“How could we unify this thing?” Bill asked. “Could we, out of our experience, describe certain methods that had done the trick for us? Obviously, if this movement was to propagate, it had to have literature so its message would not be garbled, either by the drunk or by the general public.”
The Book Is Born
Following a period of several years in which Bill W. and the early members set about putting their experiences into print, the book finally appeared in April 1939, published by Works Publishing Company and spanning 400 pages.
Widely distributed, both among alcoholics seeking help and those professionals who dealt with alcoholics and their families on a regular basis, many in the medical and religious communities contributed their thoughts on its contents. A 1939 review of the book by the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association called the stories “gripping,” and the New England Journal of Medicine urged all who at some time had to deal with the problem of alcoholism to read “this stimulating account.” And, while a review in The New York Times referred to it as “a strange book” and “unlike any other book before published,” the reviewer, Percy Hutchison, noted that “the general thesis of Alcoholics Anonymous is more soundly based psychologically than any other treatment of the subject I have ever come upon.”
From the world of religion, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the founding minister of Riverside Church in New York and a professor at Union Theological Seminary, wrote, “This extraordinary book deserves the careful attention of anyone interested in the problem of alcoholism. Whether as victims, friends of victims, physicians, clergymen, psychiatrists or social workers … this book will give them, as no other treatise known to this reviewer will, an inside view of the problem which the alcoholic faces…. The book is not in the least sensational,” he continued. “It is notable for its sanity, restraint, and freedom from over-emphasis and fanaticism. It is a sober, careful, tolerant, sympathetic treatment of the alcoholic’s problem and the successful techniques by which its co-authors have won their freedom.”
As the book began to take hold, selling over 300,000 copies in its first 15 years, it continued reaching an ever broader audience. Following publication of the book’s second edition in 1955, a reviewer in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol wrote, “When I first heard about A.A. more than two decades ago, the original Alcoholics Anonymous book had not yet been published. The story was that a few alcoholics had gotten together and formed a club or society to help one another overcome their problems of drunkenness. Later it became known that they had written a book describing their method, and they believed they had found the golden key, the solution to the problem of alcoholism. It sounded like another crackpot scheme, like so many other ‘cures’ for alcoholism, many with ‘books’ to explain them; it was bound to fail in wide application. Years after, when the movement persisted, it was unavoidable to read the book. It became possible to recognize that here was an exception. Indeed, it was impossible not to recognize that this book was a phenomenon, that in spite of the disadvantages of collective authorship it spoke from and to the heart and carried something rare in literature: a positive therapeutic potential.”
Still later, with publication of the third edition in 1976, Dr. Abraham Twerski, Director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center, wrote in the Employee Assistance Quarterly, “The Twelve Steps are a protocol for personality, for growth, and for self-realization, a process of value to even the non-alcoholic or non-addicted individual. Thus, even if science should someday discover a physiologic solution to the destructive effects of alcohol, the personality enhancing value of the Big Book will continue.”
Now in its fourth edition and 75th year of continuous publication, it is expected that sometime in 2014 the 40 millionth copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous will be sold. Available in 70 languages, plus American Sign Language and Braille, with multiple print, audio and electronic formats, A.A.’s basic text has provided a blueprint for recovery from alcoholism that has been followed successfully by millions of alcoholics worldwide.
To commemorate this milestone, A.A. World Services, Inc. will make available a facsimile edition of the book’s first printing, with paper similar to the original and with the same binding, content and book jacket. For more information contact the General Service Office or visit www.aa.org.
Other articles include “Anonymity – Then and Now” and “Anonymity and New Media Technology” (which will be posted in the next week or so).