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The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: What is it?

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), officially known as “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism,” is the foundational text of AA and its 12 Step program. The text got this name because the first edition of the book had rather thick pages, making the book even thicker than its content would suggest.

The book is designed to be a basic treatise on how to achieve recovery from alcohol addiction and was primarily written by one of the founding members of AA, William G. Wilson (often referred to as Bill W.). The premise of the book describes the 12-Step program that has been widely applied to help individuals find or maintain recovery from substance use disorders.

The Big Book is one of the bestselling books of all time and has received numerous accolades, including being designated as one of the most influential books written in English by TIME Magazine, and one of the books that shaped America by the Library of Congress.

What is in the AA Big Book?

The Big Book serves as a general guidebook for those working to achieve recovery through AA and its programs. The book is well over 400 pages long and contains numerous chapters. Some chapters are devoted to specific audiences, and others are more general in nature. For instance, the second part of the book includes personal stories of alcoholics and their recovery experiences; chapter 5 discusses the 12 steps; and chapter 6 discusses the types of actions needed to be undertaken before the 10th step.

The book is designed to be accessible by anyone, and the AA organization has developed numerous adjunctive aids to assist individuals who wish to use the Big Book and apply its principles in their daily lives. These include books on how to negotiate through the 12 Steps, reflections to read and think about during the day, and numerous other texts that help individuals apply the principles in the Big Book and better understand its precepts.

For individuals who have never read the Big Book and are interested in knowing the contents of the book, a partial table of contents for the fourth edition is presented below:

  • Preface Foreword to First Edition
  • Foreword to Second Edition)
  • Foreword to Third Edition
  • Foreword to Fourth Edition
  • The Doctor’s Opinion
  • CHAPTERS
  • Bill’s Story
  • There Is a Solution
  • More about Alcoholism
  • We Agnostics
  • How It Works
  • Into Action
  • Working with Others
  • To Wives
  • The Family Afterward
  • To Employers
  • A Vision for You
  • PERSONAL STORIES
  • How Forty-Two Alcoholics Recovered from Their Malady
  • PART I – Pioneers of AA
  • PART II – They Stopped in Time
  • PART III – They Lost Nearly All
  • APPENDICES
  • The AA Tradition
  • Spiritual Experience
  • The Medical View on AA
  • The Lasker Award
  • The Religious View on AA
  • How to Get in Touch with AA
  • 12 Concepts (Short Form)

Readers interested in reading any one of these chapters to learn more about the Big Book and AA can find an online PDF version of any of these chapters here.

What is the Goal of the Big Book?

The major goal of the book is to get individuals to commit to a specific program of recovery for alcohol addiction that includes embracing the notion of a “higher power.” Over the years, this notion of a higher power has changed into a spiritual attitude, whereas initially, the higher power concept referred to in the book represented the God of Christianity due to the influence of the Oxford Group on the founders of AA. As AA became more diversified in its membership, non-Christian individuals sought to be involved in group meetings and to apply its principles; as a result, the notion of a higher power became more generalized to allow individuals from all backgrounds to benefit from the program.

Members of AA are encouraged to read the book daily and follow its precepts. Most staunch members of AA are strict traditionalists and refer to the Big Book over research-based evidence, advice from counselors, and other alternative approaches to recovery that do not embrace the notions of the Big Book. However, millions of 12-Step group members attest to its positive effect in their life. New members are encouraged to buy the book and read it frequently. If they have questions, they are encouraged to discuss these with other AA members, particularly with their sponsor.

Development of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book

Bill W. was a successful businessman who lost his career due to his use of alcohol. He joined a spiritual movement group, the Oxford Group, that had its roots in Christianity and was very influential in the early development of AA. It was there that he met the other cofounder of AA, Dr. Bob.

The two found that sharing their experiences helped them deal with their cravings for alcohol and facilitated their recovery. They began to share their experiences with others, and the system appeared to facilitate sobriety in many other individuals. Bill W. Started writing the book in the late 1930s, and the first edition was published in 1939 by Bill W. and Dr. Bob.

Effectiveness and Criticisms of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book

The primary support for AA comes from members who are thoroughly devoted to its precepts and overall approach. Numerous criticisms of AA and the Big Book have been voiced over the years. Because AA focuses on maintaining the confidentiality of its members and the content of its meetings, there is very little direct empirical research evidence to support its use. Numerous critics have cited many of the flaws in the program, including its Judeo-Christian basis and numerous references to God as making AA a sort of cult. One of the faults often cited with the Big Book is its reliance on anecdotal evidence (simple subjective beliefs and personal reports that are not based on research findings) and AA’s refusal to allow itself to be subject to empirical research techniques. These problems place reports of the success of AA and the precepts in the Big Book as being similar to the reports of successes for individuals who use psychics or read horoscopes.

On the other hand, AA has a relatively impressive membership worldwide of devoted followers who attest that the principles outlined in the Big Book and AA meetings have helped to shape their lives and aided them in maintaining sobriety. Many individuals who are caught up in the legal system as a result of alcohol or drug abuse are often required by courts to attend 12-Step meetings, and it is the opinion of numerous government officials, including judges, that these meetings are beneficial to recovery.

In the final analysis, the program and the information outlined in the Big Book as well as the program followed in AA meetings is not for everyone. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to recovery from any type of substance use disorder. Some individuals will find the Big Book to be quite helpful, whereas others may not find any relevance to the book at all.

Finding Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

The bottom line is that the information in the Big Book and the program of recovery used in AA and other 12-Step groups is not going to cause harm. If it works, use it. If it does not work, find a program that does.

Help for alcohol addiction is easy to find, but it is not always easy to ask for. Overcoming an addiction to or a dependency on alcohol can be a long and sometimes frustrating process, but if you’ve made the decision to stop drinking you’ve crossed the most important hurdle in your recovery.

If you’re ready to get help with alcohol addiction, visit the AA website to find a support group near you. There are also many secular programs that may help you achieve or maintain recovery.

However, if you or a loved one need detox support or addiction treatment, you may benefit from attending treatment at a dedicated rehab facility. American Addiction Centers (AAC) operates treatment facilities nationwide, with navigators standing by 24/7 to help you get admitted into treatment. Our addiction helpline may also be able to help connect you with rehabs near you. To speak to an admissions navigator, call .



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