Notes on the Big Book; Title Page to xiii

Notes on the Big Book; Title Page to xiiOriginals

Question: What is the actual title of our “Big Book?” And why is it called the “Big Book” Anyway?

I am always amused how often alcoholics, frequently sober for many years, are unaware of the actual title of the book they are living their life in accordance with. Typical, eh?

The title is: Alcoholics Anonymous: How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered From Alcoholism. Interesting side note: Many thousands had NOT recovered at the printing. Less than forty had any significant time sober. Leave any thoughts you have in the comments box.

On a thorough discussion of why we call it “The Big Book,” please click here.

Question: Why are there so many different, authoritative-sounding “this is the way it happened” accounts relayed in AA meetings?

Whenever a society writes its own history and then passes it down primarily through word-of-mouth, apocalyptic and mythic accounts are sure to filter in, through, and down.

Example: We frequently point to Rockefeller as funding AA’s early growth. This is partially true: Rockefeller didn’t freely offer Bill and the rest money because he believed in our cause, we had to chase him down, and none of our members ever actually spoke with the great philanthropist; the closest we ever got was his son, Norman.

We begged and pleaded for a handout, were offered a small amount and denied more. We went back, begging for help. We were denied more. We chased after Rockefeller’s contacts, one-at-a-time, office by office, seeking more money. We had some success, but most followed Rockefeller’s lead.

Not quite the story I heard when I first came in. How about you?

PLEASE NOTE: We very carefully avoid accusing anyone of intentionally lying or being dishonest, neither do we believe that a more historically accurate understanding of our roots will help us to have “better” sobriety or “better” anything at all. We merely want to re-humanize our founders, take them off their socially-imposed pedestal, and understand the early days of our fellowship with greater clarity.

Question: Why did they talk about alcoholics being “recovered?” Doesn’t that imply they aren’t alcoholics anymore?

The use of the word “recovered” as opposed to “recovering” — as well as “ex-problem drinker” as opposed to “ex-alcoholic” — are reflections of two things happening simultaneously in the course of Alcoholics Anonymous history. The first is a misunderstanding of the context in which the word “recovered” is  frequently used; the second is the rise and infiltration of professional rehabilitation mentality into AA culture.

Here is our first lesson in understanding seeming contradictions in any text.

If I read something that appears to contradict the rest of AA literature, I first look more closely at the context. Perhaps an answer is to be found in the context. If no answer comes, I ALWAYS interpret the contradictory statement in the light of the greater program of steps and traditions, keeping in mind this VERY IMPORTANT FACT: fellow alcoholics wrote this book; mistakes and personality defects surely made their way onto the pages in small and insignificant ways.

After all, the rest of the literature is clear, right?

That is the miracle of it. We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality – safe and protected. We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. That is our experience. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.

It is easy to let up on the spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do, for alcohol is a subtle foe. We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities. “How can I best serve Thee – Thy will (not mine) be done.” These are thoughts which must go with us constantly. We can exercise our will power along this line all we wish. It is the proper use of the will.

page 85

In my opinion, Bill makes a distinction between alcoholic behavior and alcoholism. For Bill, we certainly DO reach a place of complete recovery from alcoholic behavior (obsessive drinking, cravings, insanity of all kinds, etc). If we think of “recovered” only in the light of behavior (and NOT in terms of the ongoing abnormal state of mind and body), we settle the issue in a way acceptable to most.

Also, it is vital to remember that over the course of eighty years there has been a rise in the nonalcoholic, professional class of people who’ve made careers out of working with alcoholics. The idea that “recovery” is a never-ending, self-contained entity that should be sought for itself came from rehabs, counselors and social workers. The idea that we “enter a state of recovery” and remain there permanently is NOT a theme in the Big Book; for Bill and those like him, recovery is a process that leads TO BEING RECOVERED and is then maintained by selfless giving to others and spiritual growth.

In my opinion, most of this debate is a pointless exercise in wordplay, a splitting of verbal hairs.

I’ve had a sponsor who insists (after twenty plus years) that he is “recovering from alcoholism.” I’ve had another who introduces himself as a “gratefully recovered alcoholic.”

I don’t think what I (or anyone else) calls it really matters all that much. Am I drinking today? No?

Good enough.

Question: What happened to all those stories that it talks about in the preface to the second edition?

Stories seemed to come and go, get retitled, get edited, get removed unbelievably often and with unclear motives. Hear the answers are simpler.

People relapsed. They committed suicide. They drank themselves to death. For a full listing of all the stories as they came and went, plus a place to read this no-longer-available material, click here.

Question: Is what we read today exactly the same as what the first readers of the Big Book actually read.

After a bit of research, I found this, a reproduction of the 1938 Original Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous preface. This was the version of The Big Book distributed to friends and colleagues of AA’s founders before the First Edition was printed.

Note: Here is another example of a common misconception spread by word-of-mouth; totally innocent, yet completely inaccurate. It is said in many meetings that italicized words were more expensive than regular type and for that reason, very careful attention must be paid while reading Alcoholics Anonymous: How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered From Alcoholism to any words or phrases in italics.

This is not entirely accurate. Originally, our founders stressed important ideas by printing them in ALL CAPITALS. It was not until later editions and printings that we came to use italic type to place stress on important concepts in the printings. Below, in the original preface, it will become apparent immediately that the text lacks italicization of any kind.

Note also: Among our membership, there was some discussion that the original forward included the phrase “hopeless state of mind and body and spirit.” This is incorrect.  Fun idea: Take your current copy of the Big Book and compare the first preface with what’s in your copy.

Same thing, right?


We, of Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. To show other alcoholics PRECISELY HOW THEY CAN RECOVER is the main purpose of this book. For them, we think these pages will prove so convincing that no further authentication will be necessary. We hope this account of our experiences will help everyone to better understand the alcoholic. Many do not yet comprehend that he is a very sick person. And besides, we are sure that our new way of living has its advantages for all.

It is important that we remain anonymous because we are too few, at present, to handle the overwhelming number of personal appeals which will result from this publication. Being mostly business or professional folk we could not well carry on our occupations in such an event. We would like it clearly understood that our alcoholic work is an avocation only, so that when writing or speaking publicly about alcoholism, we urge each of our Fellowship to omit his personal name, designating himself instead as “A Member of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Very earnestly we ask the press also, to observe this request, for otherwise we shall be greatly handicapped.

We are not an organization in the conventional sense of the word. There are no fees nor dues whatsoever. The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking. We are not allied with any particular faith, sect or denomination, nor do we oppose anyone. We simply wish to be helpful to those who are afflicted.

We shall be interested to hear from those who are getting results from this book, particularly from those who have commenced work with other alcoholics. We shall try to contact such cases.

Inquiry by scientific, medical and religious societies will be welcomed.

Question: Why does Bill talk about us being “business or professional folk” (since that wasn’t true; we were mostly unemployed and unemployable).

why does he give the reason for anonymity as “we are too few, at present, to handle the overwhelming number of personal appeals which will result?”

How could he say ” our alcoholic work is an avocation only” when he was scraping together a living doing AA work himself?

Isn’t All of this a bit grandiose?

Think of it this way: the first preface is Bill’s way of writing a resume for all of Alcoholics Anonymous. He is being honest the same way I might be honest when presenting my credentials to a potential employer: without blatant dishonesty but without reckless exposure either.

For more on Bill’s mindset during the preparation of the text, see the transcript of his talk on the subject here.


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