Hypothetical 5th Edition of the Big Book to have major changes?

Although I do not attend AA meetings in person, I still make use of and work the Twelve Steps. I enjoy reading Twelve Step literature every day, whether it be favorite passages from the Big Book or from a few daily meditations and reflections books. I also really enjoy participating in online recovery on In the Rooms. My recovery program is hardly traditional, being primarily focused on Catholic spirituality and supplemented by Twelve Step literature and online recovery. But I still have a deep interest in AA, its future and such like.

The current Big Book of AA is in its 4th edition and was published in 2001. New editions come out every few decades (1st one in 1939, 2nd edition in 1955, the 3rd in 1976.) So, given that the current edition is coming up on being 20 years old, I was wondering if there might be plans afoot to update it with a 5th edition.

I cannot seem to find any definitive, authoritative online sources that say so; except for a few regional AA groups petitioning for such a thing, there does not seem to be any formal announcement from AA about a 5th edition, except perhaps considering discussing such a project in 2022. 

I did find one blogger who declared recently that they did vote on such a project, and that they will change the first 164 pages of the Big Book. This is the classic,  legendary and revered program of recovery section, commonly referred to as the “first 164 pages,” or simply, “the first 164.” These were written by Bill. W., the co-founder of AA and are almost regarded as a ‘sacred text’ by long time AA members. It is in these pages that the Twelve Steps are described, amongst other helps. “Anonymous Alcoholic,” in their blog of the same name, declared:

Unbelieveable. They will take out “To The Wives”, “The Family Afterward” and “To The Employers”, and they will change the pronouns to they and them and develop new stories.

Source: “And Yes…They Voted To CHANGE THE BIG BOOK!!!”

I submitted a comment, which hasn’t appeared yet asking Anonymous Alcoholic for their source; I diligently searched and like I said above, found nothing definitive.

I can understand and appreciate Anonymous Alcoholic’s concern. Change is hard, especially in something near and dear and life-saving. But still, survival means adaptation, and when people, places and human organizations do not adapt to change, they vanish. If this person’s fears are correct, and they will change the Big Book in the manner supposed, I have no problem with it (please read on before submitting hostile comments 😉 ) because in my opinion, for AA to release another edition of the Big Book and retain the current ‘first 164 pages’ sends the entire movement on the pathway to irrelevance. Other recovery programs using contemporary research on alcoholism and contemporary language will supplant AA. They even may make use of the Steps, but in the end the Twelve Steps may be all that anyone will recall of AA. The ‘fellowship’ will fade into irrelevance from blind resistance to needed change.

First, the basic facts regarding new editions of the Big Book (which, incidentally, has the formal name of “Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th edition”). Every new edition is published for the express purpose of reflecting the changes in the membership of Alcoholics Anonymous since the previous edition was published. So far, this has only merited changes in the “Personal Stories” sections. Old stories are deleted, some retained, and new stories reflecting ‘changes in the membership’ replace the deleted ones. These typically reflect demographic and societal changes. Some people appreciate the changes, some dislike them, others don’t much care and just want to know “how they stayed sober.”

Second, it seems that every time a new edition is released, there is pressure to alter the first 164 pages. Through the 4th edition, AA has resisted the urge to alter them. Hard core traditionalists defend the efficacy of these chapters, and since Bill W. wrote them, they are untouchable. Others insist that they are archaic, sexist or outdated and have served their purpose. They need to be updated to maintain relevancy with people now entering AA.

I agree with the latter. I think the time is nigh for the “first 164” to be updated. Although the “first 164” has helped me and countless others recover from alcoholism since 1939, it is time for them to be refreshed. Now, before your head explodes with irate emotion if you’re among the legions who oppose such changes, bear with me, please, and read my arguments and counsels.

 Consider: the “first 164 pages” were written in the 1930s. They use 1930s American English complete with slang. Should people in the 2020s and 2030s and onwards be subjected to that? They reflect a 1930s understanding of alcoholism. Therein lies the need for a change; the archaic language just sounds very odd and difficult to contemporary ears. It also sounds sexist, although that merely reflects the social norms back then (over 90% of ex-drunks were male, and it was assumed the reader was a man) and thus no malicious sexism was intended. And then there has been nearly 90 years of growth in our understanding of alcoholism and the disease concept of it. AA need not abandon the “disease concept of alcoholism;” but they could update the chapters on understanding alcoholism with the near-century of development since then. 

The chapters that Anonymous Alcoholic cites, “To The Wives”, “The Family Afterward” and “To The Employers,” form the core program of what came to be the Al-Anon Family Programs. Al-Anon has been around since the 1950s, is a mature organization with its own literature, and they hardly need these chapters. Omitting them could free up room for more stories, or for more extensive recovery program chapters (or both.) 

For anyone worried that updating the language will render fundamental changes to the meanings of the classic program of recovery: AA could easily solicit recovered alcoholics and non-alcoholics who are experts in language and make certain that the essential program retains the same meanings and ideas, just rendered in contemporary English usage. Consider that the Christian Bible get translated every few decades to reflect changes in language as well as deeper understandings of the intent of the Sacred Inspired writers. The Bible gets updated while still (hopefully) retaining the same theology and doctrines, but the Big Book is sacrosanct and inviolable?

No one need to fear that the original 164 will be lost forever; if past AA actions are any indication, they could publish a separate book containing the original first 164 pages just like when in 2003 they published “Experience, Strength and Hope,” a book that contains every personal story from the first 3 editions of the Big Book that are not in the current 4th edition. With that precedent, AA seems intent on preserving their recovery heritage. Also, AA’s copyright to the first edition of the Big Book expired in the US; meaning it is now in the public domain and therefore can be published by anyone. (Nevertheless, AA has reprinted a special commemorative edition of it a few years ago.) So, the classic program will never be lost, either through AA itself publishing the ‘first 164’ on their own as a standalone text, or someone reprinting the original edition. So, I wouldn’t worry. Everyone will be free to use whatever ‘program’ they want; people can use the 5th edition with an updated text but still refer to ‘how it was done’ from 1939 thru 2020whenever. Or, people can use the 5th edition for just the newer personal stories and use any ‘first 164 pages’ heritage book/1st edition public domain reprint for the classic program of recovery. I would really be shocked if they just let the first 164 pages just pass out of memory; it has helped countless people and deserves to be preserved. So, any way you look at the issue, a revised “first 164” is hardly apocalyptic and calamitous. The classic text will always be around.

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  1. Hi, like you, I am a fellow Catholic in recovery. was always taught to check my religion and politics at door, so to speak. With all due respect, while we do need to adapt, human nature has never really changed all that much. So, whether we agree with pronoun, gender or other nuances is not the issue. Maybe going to an actual meeting once in a while might be in order. AA is one drunk talking to another. Nothing more. Thanks for listening.

  2. Hello! Yes confirming – they actually are pulling a bait and switch action – they are putting out the 5th Edition with new stories and they are going to “translate” the 4th edition into 7th grade english at which point they will change the pronouns, and take out the chapters that they don’t like – eventually, however, that edition will become the 5th Edition – but they are doing it in this manner to avoid the fight from the long-timers. Our GSR is buying into it and told it to us this way – “OH they are not change the first 164 pages!” – which of course does not include the Dr.’s Opinion… so over the next few years they will get the whole thing changed UNLESS someone gets a NY AA lawyer to report them to the Attorney General’s Office for violating our bi-laws

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