A Book that Heals the Spirit
By Michael Stillman
On June 18, 2004, one of the most influential books ever written went on the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York. It is a book reverentially called the “Big Book,” though its official title is “Alcoholics Anonymous.” The “Big Book” is the bible of that organization and the millions of members whose lives have been saved by its advice. Those who have not suffered from alcoholism nor been closely touched by those who do may know little of this book, but for many of those who have wrestled this beast, it has literally been the difference between life and death.
Alcoholics Anonymous was formed in 1935 when a New York businessman and Akron doctor, both alcoholics, met. The businessman, William Wilson, better known by the anonymous moniker “Bill W.,” was in the process of recovery, while the physician, Robert Smith, or “Dr. Bob,” was deep in the struggle. In working out their issues together, the two men reached one momentous conclusion. They determined that fellow alcoholics, who had lived with and understood the disease, were the best suited to help others free themselves from its grasp. Alcoholics helping alcoholics. And all anonymously, so that people could seek help without fear of embarrassment or punishment for their condition. They created a 12-step program which alcoholics, working together, could use to lift themselves from their addiction.
The group slowly gathered new members seeking help, and a few other supporters, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr. In 1938, they published the “Big Book.” Early copies of the “Big Book,” especially signed ones, have been collectible for quite some time, but the one offered by Sotheby’s was special. This was the master draft copy, typewritten but filled with handwritten annotations. The master had been passed around to many people for their comments, which are written in the margins and other blank spaces. It is believed that some of the annotations were made by Wilson, aka “Bill W.”
Alcoholics Anonymous would receive publicity in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Liberty Magazine in 1939, which would help the organization grow. However, it was an article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1941 which really brought it to the public’s attention. This gave the organization national exposure, and exposed a need for their services perhaps greater than anyone might have imagined. Today, A.A. is a global organization helping victims of alcoholism all over the world. They have an estimated 2,000,000 current members according to the A.A. website, but even this is likely a small fraction of the number of people they have helped over the years.