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The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: What is it?

The book: Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism is often referred to in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (AA) as the Big Book. 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 recover from alcoholism 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 other forms of substance use disorders, but was originally designed to be a treatise on recovery from alcoholism.

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.

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.

What is in the AA Big Book?

The Big 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.

The major goal of the book is to get individuals to commit to a specific program of recovery for alcoholism 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.

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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.

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 have been voiced over the years, perhaps one of the most critical being an article published in 2014 in The Atlantic.

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.

On the other hand, the empirical research does not suggest that 12-Step programs like AA and the principles in the Big Book are any more effective than any other structured approach to recovery, and in some instances, they are probably not as effective as empirically validated approaches.

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.

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.

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