The Big Book and Beyond
One Sunday afternoon in Akron, Ohio, as our cofounders Bill W. and Dr. Bob were sitting in Dr. Bob’s living room, they began to count heads. It was the fall of 1937, two and a half years after Bill and Dr. Bob had met. According to their count, there were about forty ex-drunks now staying sober in Akron and New York. Bill and Dr. Bob were ecstatic. Bill recalled the moment in his history of the Fellowship, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: “As we carefully re-checked the score, it suddenly burst upon us that a new light was shining into the dark world of the alcoholic. . . . We wept for joy, and Bob and Anne and I bowed our heads in silent thanks.”
Then they began to consider how they could carry their message of recovery to others. Bill insisted they needed paid missionaries and special hospitals for alcoholics. Dr. Bob was skeptical about those ideas, but they both agreed upon the need for a book, a book to spread the message and to prevent it from becoming garbled by word of mouth. Bill then returned to New York to begin work on the new venture.
Despite the lack of money, the book idea moved ahead, and in an attempt to raise the necessary funds, a stock company was formed called Works Publishing, Inc. We know that company today as Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, or simply AAWS.
First Edition of the Big Book
Bill began writing the book in the spring of 1938. He would write a portion and then have the groups in Akron and New York offer their comments. Some rather heated discussions took place over a number of issues, but the writing was completed and the book was published in April 1939.
Alcoholics Anonymous emerged as a title for the book because the early members referred to themselves as “a nameless bunch of alcoholics.” A price of $3.50 finally was decided upon, a rather high amount for that time, so the thickest paper available was chosen. Because of its bulkiness, the finished book became known as the Big Book, as it is still called today.
Jack Alexander’s Saturday Evening Post article
It wasn’t until an article on Alcoholics Anonymous by Jack Alexander appeared in the March 1, 1941, issue of The Saturday Evening Post that the book really began to sell. In fact, Bill and his secretary, Ruth Hock, in their small New York office, were inundated with book orders and questions about the Fellowship. The Jack Alexander article had brought both the Fellowship and the book Alcoholics Anonymous to national attention and membership jumped from 2000 to 8000 in one year.
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
New AA groups were also forming at a rapid pace, and numerous letters with questions pertaining to the growth of these new groups were coming into the office as well, prompting Bill to begin to formulate what are now our Twelve Traditions. Drawing on the early groups’ experience, he expanded on his ideas for group guidelines in a series of articles written for the AA Grapevine beginning in the August 1945 issue and culminating in April 1946 with a piece called “Twelve Points to Assure Our Future.” Feelings about these suggestions were aired for the next four years in the groups and in the Grapevine before they were finally adopted in 1950 as the Twelve Traditions.
In 1951, Bill turned his attention to producing a volume of essays, writing an article about each of the Twelve Steps and editing the articles on the Traditions that he had written for the Grapevine. Having confronted some of the emotional and spiritual “demons” that can remain after sobriety has been achieved, Bill and some of the early AAs had learned that sober living does not necessarily bring instant immunity from feelings of rejection, grief, guilt, rage, or jealousy. The essays in the “Twelve and Twelve” provide a practical and spiritual prescription for some of these problems, which may have to be addressed to gain a comfortable life.
Bill put together Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions in much the same manner as he had the Big Book. As he finished a section, he would send it to friends and editors (including Jack Alexander) for comments. The book was first published in June 1953, and by October of 1953 over 25,000 copies had been distributed.
Second Edition of the Big Book
The following year, Bill began working on a revision of the Big Book. The main text, dealing with the principles of AA, was left unchanged, as were Bill’s story and Dr. Bob’s and six others’. Thirty new stories were added to include more stories by women, more “high-bottom stories” and more stories from younger members. The Second Edition came out in 1955, in time for the Second International Convention in St. Louis. That was the Convention where Bill turned responsibility for AA’s leadership over to the General Service Conference, a body of elected delegates who met once a year with AA trustees and staff. This was, as Bill put it, AA’s coming of age.
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age
In addition to being an accounting of the three days of the St. Louis Convention, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age is a history of the Fellowship up to that point. Published in 1957, it includes three talks given by Bill on our three legacies of Recovery, Unity, and Service, as well as talks given by key friends of AA.
The A.A. Service Manual and the Twelve Concepts for World Service
In 1955, shortly after the Fellowship adopted the General Service Structure, AAWS published the Third Legacy Manual, a guide to AA’s new world service structure. Then in 1962, the General Service Conference accepted the Twelve Concepts of World Service, and AAWS expanded the manual to include an essay on each of them, along with a description of the warranties. The Concepts, including the Rights of Decision, Participation, and Appeal, are the bedrock of AA service; the Warranties are the Conference’s guarantees to the Fellowship that it will always conform to the Twelve Traditions.
The Third Legacy Manual was substantially revised in 1969, and published as the A.A. Service Manual we use today. AAWS prints an updated edition of the manual every year.
As Bill Sees It
The title of Bill’s last book, The A.A. Way of Life was changed to As Bill Sees It in 1975. The book consists entirely of excerpts from Bill’s writings touching nearly every aspect of AA’s way of life. Many AAs use it as an aid to meditation and a source of discussion topics for meetings. It’s indexed alphabetically from “acceptance” to “willingness.” It was published in 1967.
The Third and Fourth Editions
Bill did much of the work on the First and Second Editions of the Big Book, but the third edition, coming after Bill’s death, was an undertaking of the Trustees’ Literature Committee and the General Service Conference Literature Committee. In keeping with Bill’s rationale for changing the First Edition, only the story section of the Third Edition was changed. It was presented to the Fellowship in 1976. The Conference voted to have the first 164 pages, the Preface, the Forwards, “The Doctor’s Opinion,” “Dr. Bob’s Nightmare,” and the Appendices remain as is. So in 2001, when the Fourth Edition appeared, only the stories had been updated.
Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers
What began as an idea to write a joint biography of AA’s cofounders, Dr. Bob and Bill, became instead two separate books–Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers and Pass It On, the story of Bill W.’s life. Written almost thirty years after his death, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers is a personal portrait of the man who helped establish AA and the principles it is built on. Based on interviews with his family and with AA members who pioneered the movement, it gives a history of AA and a picture of Dr. Bob from those who knew him best.
Pass It On
A detailed account of Bill’s life and of the birth and growth of Alcoholics Anonymous, Pass It On also includes thirty-nine photographs and a timeline of of significant dates in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. “Bill showed us how to receive the gift of life,” says the Foreword. “This is our gift to him–his life as we see it. We like to think he would enjoy this telling of his tale.” After five years in the works, Pass It On was published in 1984.
Came To Believe
Published in 1973, this booklet is a collection of seventy-six AA members’ search for spiritual fulfillment. It is a wonderful reflection of the diversity of AA members’ understanding of God or to whatever higher power members relate.
A great guide for living one day at a time without alcohol, this booklet is full of tips on how to stay sober and live a life that is “happy, joyous, and free.” It was published in 1975.
A book of reflections “by AA members for AA members,” Daily Reflections was, in part, a response to a daily meditation book entitled Twenty-Four Hours a Day. First published in 1954 and revised and reprinted by Hazelden Foundation with AA members in mind in 1975, it proved so popular with some members of the Fellowship that efforts were made to have it designated Conference-approved. When they failed, AAWS looked into publishing its own aid to meditation, and after careful consideration, Daily Reflections was published in 1990. Each reflection is based on a quotation from Conference-approved literature.
Experience, Strength & Hope
The fifty-six stories in this 2003 collection are from the first three editions of the Big Book and have been retired from the current edition. Beginning with twenty-six stories from the 1939 edition, the book offers a rare look at early. AA when no one, including Bill W. and Dr. Bob, had more than three and a half years of sobriety. Subsequent stories from the 1955 and 1976 editions, many of which first appeared in the AA Grapevine, reflect the stunning growth and wide appeal of the movement.