What Does the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book Teach?

Alcoholics Anonymous is a non-denominational program, but the group still has its own equivalent of a sacred text: The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book.

The volume is well-known among members of the program, and for good reason—it’s one of the most important aspects in all of AA. In fact, the Big Book is where the central tenants of the program can be found, and where its different steps toward recovery are explained.

What Is the Big Book?

Indeed, the book’s official title, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism indicates what it’s been capable of over the years. (Its official nickname comes more from the general size—clocking in at over 400 pages—and importance of the volume.)

But of course, the story had to start somewhere.

For the AA Big Book, that was in the 1930s, when a man named Bill W. lost his job due to drinking. Bill first turned to a spiritual movement called the Oxford Group for solace, and that’s where he met Dr. Bob. The two would go on to become co-founders of AA.

Bill and Bob soon realized how therapeutic it could be to share their experiences and struggles with alcohol. Together, they began to organically design the famous 12-Step process pieced together from some of their personal beliefs and experiences. They began to tell others in the Oxford Group about their methods for sobriety, and it seemed to help them out as well. Eventually, the pair turned their teachings into a book. The first edition was published in 1939.

The AA Big Book may have started as more of a personal self-help project, but it’s grown over the years, becoming a pillar of recovery to so many people. And today, the 12 Steps only make up a small part of what’s found inside the helpful volume.

What’s In the AA Big Book?

The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book certainly lays out lots of good advice and information for alcoholics.

The volume includes, of course, the 12 Steps (Chapter 5) along with some key definitions and considerations that would help us meditate on what those steps mean. There’s an entire chapter devoted to explaining Step 10—where we devote ourselves to continue “taking moral inventory” of ourselves, in order to remain sober and vigilant even after completing the program.

There’s also a chapter about what alcoholism is and is like generally, as well as a few hopeful chapters encouraging readers to keep going and reminding them that recovery is possible. (The AA Big Book doesn’t just encourage readers not to give up, however it offers several personal stories of those who struggled and overcame their addictions to alcohol.)

But alcoholics aren’t the only people addressed within the readings of the AA Big Book.

The text also sets aside chapters for other specific audiences, including anyone coming to Alcoholics Anonymous as an atheist or agnostic. (The book informs these people that as many as half of the original AA members also did not believe in god and clarifies how it’s possible to believe in something “bigger than yourself” without it being a specific deity.)

There’s a chapter each dedicated to the spouses and employers of alcoholics, and one addressing the family unit of the alcoholic, with advice on how to reintegrate into that dynamic throughout the recovery process.

Finally, the AA Big Book doesn’t just contain the AA 12 Steps, but the AA 12 Traditions—the very rules which govern Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. As a whole, the rules are generally designed to protect the anonymity of its members and promote a genuine and supportive atmosphere at the gatherings.

Though while there’s plenty of personal lessons to be gained from reading the Big Book and anyone joining Alcoholics Anonymous absolutely should dedicate the time to doing so—the volume is used a bit differently when it comes to the group settings of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

How Is the AA Big Book Used?

Guidance for following the program is crucial, of course, though equally as important to Alcoholics Anonymous is the actual interaction with other alcoholics. And so, while the Big Book is very frequently referred to at meetings, especially as a reminder of the 12 Traditions, sometimes moderators follow the road of discussion laid out by attendees.

Every meeting and every type of meeting is different. Sometimes the path of conversation can veer away from the Big Book. Sometimes, the Big Book’s teachings are the central point of the entire meeting, with a specific step or personal story chosen to focus on and passages from the book read out loud.

Though, a familiarity with the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book is extremely helpful at all types of meetings. (Many who have been in the program a long time may even speak in short-hand or slang words used in the volume.)

Indeed, anyone choosing to go through the 12-Step program should absolutely have a volume. Personal access to the book helps foster the type of familiarity needed to help promote success with the program, and will also allow for enough time and opportunity to truly take in the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and approach the program at your own pace and from the type of genuine place that will ultimately lead to recovery.

It’s recommended for members of Alcoholics Anonymous to read or refer to the AA Big Book every day, in order to help keep them on a steady path toward recovery. Reading the book by yourself will surely help reveal some personal insights. And re-reading, and then discussing, those passages with others will hopefully solidify those thoughts, and spur on even more. The volume can also be understood differently at different times throughout the recovery process, so re-reading sections privately, later on, could also prove to be helpful.

(There have also been a number of accompanying texts published by Alcoholics Anonymous, to help flesh out the bigger topics in the Big Book. They offer advice and guidelines on how to incorporate the principals of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book into our everyday lives, and may make for good concurrent reading.)

You can find the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book online, and download it in PDF or audio form. The book is also available for sale online and at many AA meetings.

And while using the online version of the tool is of course helpful, having a personal physical copy comes with the ability to mark up, dog-ear, highlight, Post-It, or any other method that may make the reading experience more meaningful or memorable.

What Other Tools Are Used At AA Meetings?

The AA Big Book is a central part of the Alcoholics Anonymous experience, but it isn’t the only tool frequently employed by the program.

Again, every AA meeting is different, though many follow a similar general format, and that includes beginning with the Alcoholics Anonymous Preamble: A declaration that attendees are there to share their strength, experience, and hope and that the only requirement for attendance is a desire to stop drinking.

The Preamble is almost always followed by the AA Serenity Prayer, an incantation encouraging members to seek out and strike the balance between personal accountability and acceptance of the actions of a higher power. And nearly all meetings will also then read the 12 Traditions, directly from the Big Book, as a general reminder of the rules of engagement to anyone in attendance.

And the 12 Promises of Alcoholics Anonymous [link?] is another frequently-cited text, laying out the specifics of the brighter future that comes throughout and on the other side of recovery.

Altogether, though, the texts, prayers, and reminders the program tends to stand by have a recurring theme in common: Hope – that change is possible, and a better future awaits.

To learn more about the Big Book, what it teaches, and how it could help you, find your local AA meeting or call 800-839-1686Who Answers? for more information on rehab options.

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