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This story ran on page F1 of the Boston Globe.
article by David Mehegan, Globe Staff, 12/26/01.
growing pains evident in revision of its Big Book. Group
stresses mission as reason for changing stories."
bestsellers mostly are famous: the Bible, Homer's "Odyssey,"
"How to Win Friends and Influence People," "Anna
Karenina," "The Lord of the Rings." But not
all hot books are famous. Outside its circle of influence,
one of the hottest books of the past 60 years is almost
title is "Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many
Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered From Alcoholism."
But to the millions who live by it, it's known simply as
the Big Book. Written by AA cofounder William G. Wilson
("Bill W.") with help from cofounder Robert H.
Smith ("Dr. Bob") and other early members, and
published in 1939, the Big Book has sold more than 21 million
copies. It has been translated into 43 languages. Yet you
don't see it in bookstores. They can get the book, but it's
usually ordered directly from AA World Services, the publisher.
In 62 years, the price has risen, of course: from $3.50
now, the Big Book had been revised only twice: in 1955 and
1976. Now the fourth edition is just off the press, and
its painstaking revision is a window into the delicacy of
tinkering with a book that many people revere as inspired
was founded in 1935. When there were about 100 members,
Wilson and Smith decided they needed a text if the movement
were to continue to grow. Wilson wrote most of the first
164 pages, outlining the philosophy, principles, and method,
and collaborated with Smith and the other members in pulling
together the rest of the book, which consists of 42 personal
testimonies of recovered alcoholics.
first edition's stories were mostly by white men, coming
out of the world of the teens, 1920s, and Great Depression.
But since AA was open to all, other kinds of people began
to join: more women, Indians, African-Americans. So in 1955
Wilson revised the book himself (Smith died in 1950), leaving
the first 164 pages alone, but substituting many new stories,
from a newly varied membership, for old ones. Wilson died
in 1971, and several years later the book was revised a
second time, by a committee.
stories were changed, but again the first 164 pages were
left alone. The new edition retains 16 stories from previous
editions, including several by the pioneers, and adds 24
again, however, the first 164 pages were left untouched.
Why not revise those pages? As explained by Richard, of
Chicago, a trained historian who chaired the revision committee,
"In the culture of AA, you don't mess with the words
of the founding members. We had to be clear that the part
written for all time was not what we were working on."
importance of the Big Book to most committed AA members
can hardly be overstated. (It is also used by many other
addiction-fighting groups, such as Overeaters Anonymous.)
In their various ways, they trust it and they love it.
they give it to you," says David, 39, of Boston, "they
say, 'It's terribly written, and it will save your life.'
When you read the first 164 pages, it is unvarnished mid-century
prose: clunky, awkward, and quite wonderful, full of phrases
you can't imagine anyone writing anytime after World War
I, let alone 1939. But underneath the odd wording and clunkiness
is this basic message of hope."
really did save my life," says Margaret, 43, of Brookline.
"How did they ever put these words together to make
it so powerful? None of the stories put me off. I didn't
think it was hokey. I soaked it up and identified with every
sentence. It grips you if you are an alcoholic."
there may be unanimity on the first 164 pages, there is
none about the stories. "When I first got it,"
says Dave, 26, of Somerville, "I read the stories.
Now I don't look at the stories. When I'm in a bad space,
I have a harder time relating to them."
others have a deep commitment to certain ones. Michael,
of Brookline, was crestfallen when it appeared that a classic
story, "Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict," had been excluded
from the new edition. "There are two paragraphs about
acceptance, on Page 449," he said sadly, "that
I read every morning." He was relieved to discover
that it was only renamed, "Acceptance Was the Answer,"
and moved (449 is now 417). His bond with that one page
is not uncommon. AA members tend to know what is meant by
a reference to "Page 449" or "Page 83."
the Big Book was therefore a dicey affair, though Richard
says it helped that the first 164 pages were strictly off
limits, however dated their tone, slang, and social assumptions.
"AA is of necessity historic," he says. "Without
that, there is a risk of amnesia about what went on before,
of devaluing this sense of experience." Leaving the
first part untouched means that every new member in a sense
meets Bill W. and Dr. Bob personally.
in the committee, there was no consensus on the stories,
which constitute 80 percent of the book. So the committee
decided to research Wilson's writings to find out his attitude
toward the book - much as constitutional scholars dig into
what James Madison or John Adams meant by "high crimes
found, says Richard, that "Bill always saw the book
as organic and dynamic, never locked in. The book was not
for those of us who were already here. That was cold water
for many. People who had been in AA for 30 years said, 'But
you can't take out that story - it's my favorite.' But we
had to say, 'We don't care. You're sober now. We need to
change it for the new people.'" Even so, most of the
oldest stories in Part One, "Pioneers of AA,"
were kept, including "Dr. Bob's Nightmare" and
"The Keys to the Kingdom," by a former flapper
of the Roaring Twenties.
new revisers decided to invite the fellowship (1.4 million
members in the United States and Canada) to submit stories.
More than 1,200 stories came in, and over a year's time
they were winnowed to 24.
criterion for the new selections was greater diversity,
although Richard said the AA way of saying that was "a
broad cross-section of sharing." He says, "AA
today is younger, more female, more brown and black, more
new storytellers include several American Indians (although
an older Indian story, "Join the Tribe!," written
in painfully stereotypical dialect, was dropped), Jews,
African-Americans (including a pioneer), a gay man and a
lesbian, and several young people.
AA members have an exaggerated reverence for the book, including
those known as "Big Book Thumpers," who believe
that in it are the solutions to all life's problems. Some
call it AA's Bible, which Richard, speaking only for himself,
members see it as divinely inspired," he says. "They
believe that Bill was given this book not through his intellectual
discovery, but as a delivered text. Some have come close
to putting Bill and Dr. Bob on a pedestal: Whatever they
said is the literal truth. The book is an esthetic and a
guide. Those who want to turn it into a literal manual of
life move it in a direction distant from life."
a million copies of the Big Book are distributed each year
in English alone, and the growth of Alcoholics Anonymous
is accelerating worldwide.
is meant to be for humankind, not bounded by people in New
York or Akron," Richard says. "In the last 20
years it has spread quickly in cultures very different from
our own. In India, AA is poised to become a huge phenomenon.
In the next few years, the majority of AAs may be Asian."
In that event, the fourth edition of the Big Book may have
a much shorter life than its predecessors.
Big Book and other AA publications can be ordered from AA
World Services Inc., PO Box 569, Grand Central Station,
New York NY 10163, or from www.aa.org
Mehegan can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org