Which “Big Book” (the Alcoholics Anonymous Basic Text) Should We Use?
By Dick B.
© 2014 Anonymous. All rights reserved
Until just recently, if an A.A. group chose to use the first (1939) edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (“the Big Book”), it might encounter several objections: (1) The 1939 edition is not copyrighted and is thus in the public domain; i.e., it is not/no longer “owned” by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2) The 1939 edition was not “A.A. General Service Conference-approved” (as there was no “Conference” in existence in 1939 to approve it!); and therefore, some asserted, neither individuals nor groups should (be allowed to) use it. (3) Use of the 1939 edition, some asserted, was (somehow) a violation of the Twelve Traditions because that edition was not A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature. (4) Occasionally, groups have been stricken, or barred, from A.A. office group listings if someone decided that a particular piece of literature was not A.A. General Service Conference-approved, was considered religious, or had not been approved by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., in New York.
Next, though few seemed to realize it, the personal testimonies in the “Personal Stories” section of the A.A. Big Book--the largest portion of the basic text book in all four of its editions—were intentionally and systematically removed from editions of the Big Book.
Specifically, 22 of the original 29 personal testimonies in the first edition’s “Personal Stories” section were not included in the second (1955), third (1976), and fourth (2001) editions. And another four of the first edition’s personal testimonies in that section were not included in the fourth edition. Thus, all but three of the personal testimonies in the “Personal Stories” section of the first edition of the Big Book were removed; and they have seldom been seen or studied by any group or individual. A few years back, the 26 first edition personal testimonies not in the fourth edition were reprinted by A.A. itself—but with apologies and criticisms. In 2003, A.A. published Experience, Strength and Hope: Stories from the First Three Editions of Alcoholics Anonymous (New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2003). This book contains the statement: “This is A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature.” This volume also states:
The importance of these personal stories cannot be overstated. [p. ix]
Experience, Strength and Hope then quotes A.A. cofounder Bill W. as follows from a 1954 letter he wrote “when he was immersed in collecting new stories for the second edition . . .”:
“The story section of the Big Book is far more important than most of us think. . . . [I]t is the written equivalent of hearing speakers at an A.A. meeting; it is our show window of results.” [p. ix]
After quoting Bill W. himself as to the importance of the personal testimonies of early AAs, the book begins to bring into question both those A.A. pioneers and their personal testimonies—particularly those stories found in the first edition:
Most of the A.A. writers got sober before the Twelve Traditions had been adopted, many of them in that chaotic period when A.A. was “flying blind” and learning from its many mistakes.” [p. xi]
A little further on, Experience, Strength and Hope goes on to say:
The stories that follow, reprinted from the first edition, take us back to the “trial and error” days, . . . The A.A.s we meet here . . . were still a little unsure and afraid of the “thing” they had found, still groping for clear guidelines, still largely uneducated about their alcoholism. [p. 2]
The book continues:
Some of the rough edges found in the first edition stories (the use of profanity, for example, references to specific religious beliefs, and several rather disorganized stories) would be smoothed out in those chosen for later editions. [pp. 2-3]
We encourage readers carefully to note the following characterizations found spread over the three statements quoted immediately above:
“before the Twelve Traditions had been adopted”;
“that chaotic period”;
“its many mistakes”;
“a little unsure and afraid”;
“largely uneducated about their alcoholism”; and
“rough edges . . . references to specific religious beliefs”
Such characterizations do little but diminish the stature, reliability, and quality of the personal testimonies of those A.A. pioneers for a sick, confused, bewildered newcomer. They tend to discourage the newcomer from reading anything but what today’s authorities deem to be above question. And these editorial characterizations come only many years after Dr. Bob, Bill W., A.A. Number Three Bill D., and the many other successful pioneers were no longer around to respond.
For all these reasons, we recommend the following publication:
Alcoholics Anonymous: “The Big Book”: The Original 1939 Edition, with a New Introduction by Dick B. (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2011)
The A.A. General Service Conference-approved book Experience, Strength and Hope has now essentially given “Conference-approved literature” status “retroactively” to the personal testimonies in the “Personal Stories” section of the first edition basic text. And the 23-page Introduction in the Dover Publications reprint of the first edition provides the best historical backdrop for those who want to know what early AAs did before there was a Big Book, before there were any “Steps” or “Traditions,” and before there were any “drunkalogs” or meetings of the kinds we know today. More and more AAs, members of other 12 Step Fellowships and groups, and other students of A.A. history are using this Dover Publications reprint of the first edition for their study sessions. The book is available on Amazon.com for under $15.00:
“The Big Book Has Never Been Changed!”--???
By the way, have you ever heard the following claim?
“The Big Book has never changed!”
The assertion above is another one of the major, destructive “myths” that have circulated within the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous because so few have done the “careful reading” spoken of on page 567 of “Appendix II: Spiritual Experience” in the fourth edition. Please note the following phrases used in the Preface of the fourth edition:
“strong sentiment against any radical changes” [p. xi];
“the first portion of this volume, . . . has been left largely untouched” [p. xi];
“revisions made for the second, third, and fourth editions” [p. xi]’
“The second edition added . . .” [p. xi];
“Upon careful reading”—to use again the language of the Big Book—wouldn’t you agree that most reasonable people would already conclude that the Big Book had been “changed?”
And there is much more.
“But the chief change [in the second edition] was in the section of personal stories, which was expanded to reflect the Fellowship’s growth. “Bill’s Story,” “Doctor Bob’s Nightmare,” and one other personal history from the first edition were retained intact; three were edited and one of these was retitled; new versions of two stories were written, with new titles; thirty completely new stories were added; and the story section was divided into three parts, under the same headings that are used now. [pp. xi-xii; bolding added]
There is a significant inaccuracy in the section of basic text quoted immediately above: “Bill’s Story” was not included in “the section of personal stories” in any of the four editions of Alcoholics Anonymous. “Bill’s Story” is found on pages 10-26 of the first edition; and is found on pages 1-16 of the second, third, and fourth editions. The “Personal Stories” section begins on unnumbered page 181 of the first edition; and it begins on unnumbered page 165 of the second, third, and fourth editions.
In addition--and very significant to our discussion of “changes” in the Big Book—there is what might be generously described as a “misimpression” left by the section of text quoted above from pages xi-xii of the fourth edition. What is not stated clearly in the section of the basic text just quoted is that 22 of the original 29 personal testimonies found in the “Personal Stories” section of the first edition basic text were not included in the second edition. (See page ix of Experience, Strength and Hope; and note that Experience, Strength and Hope states on page 221 that the story titled “The Car Smasher” in the first edition was retitled as “He Had to Be Shown” and was completely rewritten for the second edition.) Those 22 personal stories were also not included in the basic text of the third and fourth editions.
At least the discussion in the fourth edition’s Preface of changes made in the fourth edition —including the exclusion of personal testimonies found in the “Personal Stories” section of earlier editions--is clearer:
This fourth edition . . . revises the three sections of personal stories as follows. . . .
Part I . . . six stories have been deleted. . . .
Part II . . . eleven [stories have been] . . . taken out. . .
Part III . . . eight [stories] . . . were removed . . .
Among those 25 personal stories from earlier editions that were “deleted”/”taken out”/”removed” from the fourth edition, four were from the first edition:
1. “He Had to Be Shown” (which was titled “The Car Smasher” in the first edition, and was retitled and completely rewritten for the second edition—see Experience, Strength and Hope, 221 note);
2. “The European Drinker”;
3. “The News Hawk” (which was titled “Traveler, Editor, Scholar” in the first edition, and was retitled and edited for the second edition—see Experience, Strength and Hope, 268 note); and
4. “Home Brewmeister.”
In other words, A.A.’s today who read the current (2001) edition of Alcoholics Anonymous basic text are only seeing three of the original 29 personal testimonies found in the “Personal Stories” section of the first (1939) edition of the Big Book. That is, in part, why the fourth edition’s Preface speaks of:
All changes made over the years in the Big Book . . .
Hopefully, from now on, you will reject the “myth” that “the Big Book has never changed.”
And that is why we recommend, for your study and recovery, that you select Alcoholics Anonymous: “The Big Book”: The Original 1939 Edition, Dover Publications’ reprint of the first edition, the Big Book whose contents were printed before the many changes that were made in “the Basic Text”—i.e., the whole book Alcoholics Anonymous (see page ix of the fourth edition’s Preface: “. . . this book has become the basic text for our Society.”)--and before so many of the first edition’s personal testimonies were removed from sight for dozens of years.