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A First Edition of the AA “Big Book”

In the summer of 2013, we at the Center of Alcohol Studies Library took it upon ourselves to transform the conference room into an historical exhibit, displaying affiliated publications, classic photos, CAS-specific artifacts, and a complete run of our scholarly journal. While rummaging through the then-recently unlocked bookshelves seeking items to display, we came across a first print, first edition of the “Big Book,” the nickname of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) founder Bill W.’s Alcoholics Anonymous: The story of how more than one hundred men have recovered from alcoholism. Considering the item’s rarity (ours is number 233 of a run of 4,650) and value (Abebooks lists the item at prices ranging up to $125,000), we were shocked to find it shelved together with old reprints, files, and assorted miscellany. Needless to say, we locked our copy away in a secure place. Since that time, the facsimile edition was published for its 75th anniversary.

A contemporary edition of the AA “Big Book.” (Picture courtesy of AA website)

Nearly two years later, in the spring of 2015, the education and training division was in the midst of preparing for their annual Summer School of Addiction Studies, which traditionally includes an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. This year, the meeting was being run by a friendly fellow who goes by the name of John. John was at the Center meeting with staff, and had heard a rumor that the library owned a first edition of the Big Book. He came up to see us, only to have us affirm that yes, the rumors are true, and yes, he may see it. We were taken aback by his response—jaw agape, he treated the item almost as a sacred text, going so far as to kiss the cover and speak in hushed tones. “This is where it all started,” he gushed. On the spot, we offered to provide a brief presentation about the history of the Big Book to introduce his open meeting, and do a little research on its affiliation with the Center, as well as that of its author and the Alcoholics Anonymous organization in general. John was thrilled to accept the offer, and Summer School coordinator Noelle Jensen was happy to approve the joint venture, so we got to work on our research.

What we found was much more than we had originally intended, and indeed far more than we squeezed into our ten-minute introductory talk. As all things related to alcohol generally tend to do, the research quickly led us to E. M. Jellinek. He invited Bill W. to speak at the very first session of the Summer School, held at Yale in 1943. Mark Keller reminisced about these humble beginnings when he spoke on behalf of Bill W. at the 1972 Summer School ceremony in which Bill W. was posthumously granted the Jellinek Memorial Award, the first time it was given to a non-scientist:

In the early years of the Summer School, the course consisted mostly of lectures. And Jellinek thought the students, most of whom had never heard of A.A. or had only the vaguest notions about it, should become really knowledgeable about it.  So he invited Bill to come and give a lecture on A.A.  In fact, it was made a sort of grand finale of the School.

Going backward, Jellinek’s first encounter with A.A. occurred during a 1939 review of the available alcohol literature through a project funded by a Carnegie Corporation grant—a project that essentially birthed the field of field of alcohol studies. One of items included in this massive review was the The Big Book.

CAAAL punchcard
Original 1939 CAAAL card featuring Jellinek’s abstract of The Big Book in the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies Archives

While the fellowship had been helping recovering alcoholics for a few years by this point, it was not until this publication that the group was formalized with a name. It was serendipity that the book happened to be published in the exact same year Jellinek and crew would begin their literature review in earnest. A further wrinkle to the story reflected in a piece written for the AA Today, “One day that year, I found on my desk a book with a yellow and red dust cover. Its title was ‘Alcoholics Anonymous.’ With a sigh, I picked it up and said to myself: ‘some more crank stuff.’ But I hardly read a few pages when I realized that I had one of the precious gems before me.” Jellinek’s resulting description of the central thesis of the book is that the solution to alcohol addiction “is a deep and effective spiritual experience which revolutionizes [one’s] whole attitude toward life.” Jellinek and CAS would continue to sing the praises of the pioneering recovery group, as he and CAS founding father Dr. Howard Haggard page of the very first issue of the A.A. Grapevine (then simply called The Grapevine) in 1944. Their article, entitled “Two Yale savants stress alcoholism as true disease,” spoke of the emerging Yale Plan Clinics, which were only two months old at the time. Further supporting the strong ties between the Center’s clinical model and A.A., they write, “It goes without saying that one of our objectives is to further interest and confidence in Alcoholics Anonymous among those who have never heard of it or who are inadequately informed.”

As a side note, our research on this topic dovetailed nicely with another project we are working on—namely, the Reading for Recovery project, focused on bibliotherapy for recovering addicts. We were pleased to find that this concept has been long embraced by the editors of the A.A. Grapevine, who dedicated a section on the topic entitled “The Pleasures of Reading,” in which reading materials for alcoholics were listed, reviewed, or sometimes even sampled for the periodical’s audience. Their rationale was that reading provides “intellectual stimulus, philosophical fortification and wholesome distraction,” which is consistent with what we have found in the current body of scholarly literature. To further illustrate the A.A. and CAS connection, the latter’s publications are featured in early issues of the periodical. For example, the first issue highlights the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol (QJSA) as a “valuable clearing-house of the latest scientific work on that subject of vital interest to us,” while issue number five dedicates the entire section to the QJSA’s Lay Supplements series.

Our brief presentation at the open A.A. meeting, which as mentioned was not really able to fully plumb the depths of the topic, was nevertheless received successfully, and we were invited to sit through the rest of the meeting. Bill was given the honor of reading the introductory portion of the meeting, which included a brief overview of how A.A. meetings are run, as well as a description of its 12-step program.

Following the introduction, it was time for our friend John to provide his story.  About this, it must be said that approaching the topic of a recovery group from our typical objective, detached researchers’ perspective is entirely different from hearing a man making himself completely vulnerable to the room, exposing his demons and providing a depiction of some of the horrors of the disease. His story inspired one of the counselors in the room to share his own story, something he had not previously planned. His story was equally moving, and the session in general provided a very necessary human element to our research. It was so moving that no one dared interrupt the proceedings, even though the session ran later than scheduled.

At the end of the session, the attendees gathered around us to get a glimpse (and feel) of the original Big Book we had displayed alongside the closely related The book that started it all: The original working manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous, published by Hazelden in 2010.

What was originally designed to be a brief research effort for a ten-minute presentation on The Big Book opened up an entirely new research area for us instead, and shed new light on our other areas of interest. With this in mind, we recalled an article written by Barbara Weiner about the A.A. Archive as an information resource for professionals in a previous issue of SALIS News, specifically her section entitled “For the Researcher: The AA Archives.” With such a trove of information located right on our doorstep in upper Manhattan, a brief train ride away, we decided to take a day trip at the end of July to explore what they might have to offer.

Our first impression upon walking into their facility was amazement at how pristine, well-lit, and well-organized everything was, from the reception desk to the exhibit areas, and even the bathrooms, which Judit described as “nicer than the Waldorf-Astoria’s.” Coming from a small state-funded library run by two full-time staff members and a rotating team of student assistants, we were impressed (and perhaps a little bit jealous) over what an archive and library with far more resources could become. We were met by an extremely helpful young archivist (one of six full-time archivists on staff, we were told), who came prepared with a folder in hand and skillfully answered our questions. More importantly, she even ran searches for us on several keywords using a proprietary database that they keep behind closed doors. We explained that we were there for exploratory research on several separate but overlapping projects, and she was happy to provide us full-text copies of the results. Due to the sensitive nature of the material there, much of the archive is closed off to general public, including some of the results of our preliminary searches. We are currently awaiting permission from the review board for further research.

We were heartened to find in the library area, located on a bookshelf next to Bill W.’s original couch, a run of QJSA donated by J. George Strachan of the Alcohol Research Foundation in Toronto (now called CAMH), which was a great source for us to retrieve hidden treasures of alcohol history.

Although there is still a lot more left to discover, we have found strong evidence of the historic ties between CAS and A.A.  A.A. is an organization that finds value in preserving and documenting the history of alcohol studies, much as we strive to do at the Library. They are open, inclusive, and willing to share their knowledge, a tradition that dates back to the early days of Bill W. speaking at the Summer School. Keller writes about this willingness in a 1971 obituary, in which he says,

The appearance and the talk of Bill W. did not at all seem anomalous in the academic atmosphere of the School of Alcohol Studies. The doctors and the teachers and the nurses and the psychologists and the policemen and the clergymen and the other professionals who made up the student body knew they had a lot to learn from him.”

–Originally published in the November 2015 issue of the CAS Information Services Newsletter