What is the Big Book?

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What is the “Big Book” of AA?

You may have heard of the “Big Book.” What is that? The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is essentially the textbook that outlines the AA program and the 12 Steps, and features personal stories from individuals who have found recovery from alcoholism. This article explores the history of the Big Book and tells you what you can expect to find inside. For more details on the 12 Steps, visit our 12 Steps Explained Page HERE.

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History of AA & the Big Book

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by a man named Bill Wilson. If you’re not familiar with Bill W.’s story, here it is (in brief): Bill was a once successful stockbroker turned terrible alcoholic who had become so ill with alcoholism that he was facing his own death. While in the hospital, he had a white-light, spiritual experience that alleviated his alcoholism just enough for him to leave the hospital sober. Bill was able to maintain his sobriety for a time and even began putting his life back together, but one evening, while standing in a hotel lobby on a business trip, he felt a strong urge to drink. He looked over at the glitzy hotel bar — people drinking merrily, celebrating and making liquor look glamourous. Bill knew he didn’t want to drink — that to drink, for him, meant another trip to the hospital or asylum. Yet he still felt an intense, nagging pull.

Suddenly a thought occurred to him as if it had been divinely placed in his mind: “You need another alcoholic to talk to. You need another alcoholic just as much as he needs you!’

Instead of going to the bar, he went to a phone booth. He called hospitals frantically searching for another alcoholic whom he could help. When he finally got through to a hospital receptive to the idea of his visit, he bolted over. He was sent to speak bedside with another man who had been struggling with alcoholism in the same way Bill had been. That man was Dr. Bob. Bill shared his story with Bob and won over Bob’s confidence. Bonded by their common struggles, Bill W. and Dr. Bob became the first two members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The steps of the program were largely inspired by another sober group present at the time called the Oxford Group. The Oxford Group had a program built on the concepts of confession, repentance and reparation. Unlike AA, however, the Oxford Group believed strictly in a Christian God. AA altered the Oxford program to make it accessible to all people, no matter their belief in a Christian God.

In the early 30s the program of Alcoholics Anonymous was carried solely by word-of-mouth and handwritten letters. The membership of Alcoholics Anonymous, however, grew rapidly. The demand quickly outpaced Bill’s ability to respond. So in 1935 Bill and a group of sober alcoholics with whom he was connected set out to write a textbook for the program. That book was aptly titled Alcoholics Anonymous. That book — which came to be nicknamed “The Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous — is essentially the story of how the first members of Alcoholics Anonymous found recovery and a guide to the steps they took to recover. The book outlines the process of working 12 Steps. The first 164 pages of the group are kind of like the program’s instruction manual, while the following pages are made up of personal stories from alcoholics who found recovery in AA. The first third of those personal stories are cases of low-bottom drunks, the middle third medium-bottom drunks, and the last, high-bottom drunks. This wide range of stories was included to hopefully encourage all individuals — no matter the current severity of their alcoholism — to find similarities between themselves and the members of AA. The stories serve as inspiration for alcoholics searching for sobriety.

Today an AA presence can be found in approximately 180 nations, with membership estimated at more than two million people worldwide. There are more than 118,000 AA groups around the world and AA’s Big Book has been translated into 70 languages.

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How is the Big Book Used?

The Big Book is used in a number of ways. Passages of it are often read during AA meetings. Individuals read it on their own as a source of inspiration. And, perhaps most importantly, it is used as a guidebook shared from one alcoholic to another. When an individual who has found success in sobriety sits down one-on-one with a newly sober alcoholic, they form a bond known as sponsorship. A sponsor is like a mentor who guides others through the 12 steps as outlined in the Big Book. Read more about sponsorship here.

More on the Big Book

The Big Book is basically a textbook for recovery. It lays out each of the 12 steps that the very first group members took in order to find lasting sobriety. The first 164 pages are devoted to the steps. The rest is devoted to stories about alcoholics – men and women just like us. These stories are broken into three main sections — low bottom cases, medium bottom and high bottom cases. The stories are outlined this way so that everyone can relate to at least one story or another. Alcoholism is an extremely isolating disease, and it affects everyone differently. Some people lose everything at the hands of alcohol addiction, others manage to function long-term and suffer few external consequences, but experience emotional and spiritual devastation. No matter what your personal experience has been, you will find a story in the Big Book that helps you realize that you are not alone.

The Big Book is used between a sponsor and his or her sponsee as the sponsee slowly walks through the steps. The two people read together directly from the book whenever they meet up, using the Big Book as a basic outline. Most sponsors cover every single part of the Book, including the foreword. It is always a good idea to pass on what your sponsor taught you – for example, if your sponsor read through the entire Big Book with you, read through the entire Big Book with each of your sponsees. Pass it on and pay it forward to the best of your ability.

Is Reading the Big Book Really Necessary?

What if you simply don’t like to read? What if you cracked the Book open a couple of times, only to find that it was dense, outdated and seemingly pointless? What if you have a basic idea of what’s in the book based on what you’ve heard in meetings… Do you really need to painstakingly thumb through each and every page? The truth is that those who have a familiarity with and a deep understanding of the Big Book tend to have a leg up. There are countless lessons throughout the text, and it is always beneficial to refer back to certain chapters when a little extra guidance or insight is needed. It is also the role of your sponsor to walk you through the Big Book – page by page. It might seem like a daunting task at first, but consider how much of your time you spent obtaining, using and recovering from your substance of choice. Everything can be broken down into manageable portions; just remember to take things one day at a time. No one is asking you to sit down and read the book cover to cover in one fell swoop. Allow your sponsor to walk you through the Book at his or her pace, and ask any questions that you might have along the way. There are also AA meetings that are solely dedicated to working through the Book (usually called Big Book Study meetings). These meetings give you the opportunity to dive deeper into the Book and share about what you are reading while processing your personal experiences (as they pertain to alcoholism) in a safe and supportive group setting.

The idea of such a text might be off-putting to some people, especially people who draw parallels between AA and religion. It is important to keep in mind that AA is not religiously affiliated, and that while the text does talk about developing a spiritual connection in depth, the only true requirement to be a part of AA is a desire to stop drinking. As you walk through the Book with your sponsor he or she will be able to further assuage any concerns you may have and put your mind at ease.

Interesting Facts About the Big Book

Below we have included some interesting facts that pertain to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and its development. For more information on the text or on the program of AA as a whole, contact us today.

  • Bill W. wrote the first version of the Big Book by hand on legal pads. He would bring what he had written to the AA meetings on a regular basis and share his thoughts with the group. He would then edit these rough drafts and send them along to Dr. Bob for approval.
  • Bill W. claimed that he wrote the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in under 30 minutes (in 1938).
  • One New Jersey psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Howard suggested some major changes that impacted the final version of the Big Book significantly. He suggested changing “we must” and “you should,” suggesting that these phrases were too forceful and unforgiving.

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Guardian Recovery & the Big Book

At Guardian Recovery Center we utilize the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to take our clients through the program of action that is clearly outlined in the book. It has been repeatedly proven that a combination of 12 step program involvement and intensive behavioral therapy is the most effective course of action for the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction. By offering a comprehensive program of clinical care, we help prepare our clients for the road ahead while ensuring that they have the tools they need to maintain sobriety long-term once treatment comes to a close. To learn more about the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and its role in our treatment program, contact us today.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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