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Collecting@Large

One Day at a Time

Along the way, there had been several changes to the plan for the book. In June of 1938, Bill’s explanation to Dr. Bob implied that the book would be made up exclusively of personal stories that would individually highlight certain aspects of the program of recovery. This intention may still have been in effect in early August when Bill wrote to Bob offereing advice on how the personal stories should be written. But by late September, this approach had been discarded and Bill had adopted the more direct prose approach now found in the first half of the book. However, the stories from Akron were eventually used in the second half of the book which was a collection of personal recollections by sober members from both groups. The archive also contains a fascinating 15-page copy of a proposed (but never published) chapter by Hank in a Q&A format. It is a captivating and instructive look into the working of AA during these early years.

The fully annotated “master copy” of Alcoholics Anonymous sold at Sotheby’s for $1,576,000.

Everyone was desperate to get the book published so that it could start generating some cash. But first, they decided it would be wise to do a ‘preliminary printing’ that could be submitted for review and edits not just to the AA membership, but also to doctors, psychiatrists and clergymen. A multilith-offset copy was printed and circulated and all of the feedback was recorded on one ‘master copy’ held in the AA office. The criticism with the largest impact came from a New Jersey psychiatrist (who has yet to be successfully identified) who insisted that all of the “you must’s” had to be taken out of the book and replaced with “this is how we did it” verbiage. Bill was not very happy about all these changes, but they were eventually made, thereby significantly softening the directive tone of the “Original Manuscript.”

With the final edits made, Cornwall Press in upstate New York was contracted to print 5,000 copies of the book. It was only after they were finished that the printers realized that apart from a down-payment, the AA people had no money to pay for the press run. Cornwall ended up stockpiling all of the books and parceling them out to the group on a ‘pay as you go’ basis over the next two years. The first copies of Alcoholics Anonymous arrived in New York City on April 10, 1939. Two weeks after the book was published, the bank foreclosed on Bill’s and Lois’ house in Brooklyn—the site of AA’s earliest meeting in the East—forcing them to live on the charity of their friends for the next two years.

Sales of the first printing were painfully slow. It took almost two years to sell all 4,650 copies. Then in March of 1941, The Saturday Evening Post, the most popular magazine of its day, ran a very favorable article on AA, and New York City’s AA office was flooded with inquiries. The second printing made some small, but important, changes to the text. The biggest change was a rewording of the Twelfth Step. The phrase “spiritual experience” was softened to “spiritual awakening,” and a new appendix elaborated on the group’s expanded understanding of the phrase “spiritual experience.” The next noteworthy edits to the text were made in the 11th printing (1947) where, among other things, the phrase “ex-alcoholic” was changed to “ex-problem drinker,” underlining AA’s creed: “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.”

AA has proven to be a unique niche market, since many buyers are not traditional book collectors, but members of AA who feel that they “just have to own” a first edition of the book that changed their lives. Other buyers are friends and relatives of AA members. There’s also a group of more traditional collectors who specialize in books relating to the Temperance Movement and Prohibition.

Many of these collectors are content to own just one of the 16 different printings of the first edition issued between 1939 and 1954, but others insist on collecting all of them—some even pursuing the exceedingly rare multilith printing of the book.

Oddly, the 7th printing of the book (1945) is the rarest and hardest to find of the regular editions. There are a number of theories as to why this is so. According to one charming tale, this printing was intended for servicemen overseas but the ship carrying the books sank en route to Europe. The truth seems to be that in early 1945 the government was tightening its wartime rationing of paper; it either shut down the seventh printing shortly after that press run began, or the printer simply ran out of paper. Whatever the cause, very few copies were produced—estimates range from less than 500, to 1,500 books. Just one month later, the eighth printing went to press producing 20,000 copies.

AA, of course, went on to become a world-wide movement. Today there are more than 2 million members and meetings in 145 countries. But the success of a program like this can only be measured in the sobriety of the individuals it hopes to help. Fitz M, the minister’s son who championed the “God concept” died sober in 1943. Dr. Bob passed away in 1950 after 15 years of continuous sobriety. Hank P. drank just months after the Big Book was published and never again regained continuous sobriety, dying from complications of drinking in 1954. Bill W. died in 1971 after 36 sober years. Jim B., the atheist, outlasted them all and stayed continuously sober and active in AA until his death in 1974.

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William Schaberg is a member of the ABAA and the proprietor of Athena Rare Books in Fairfield, CT. He is the author of The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography (University of Chicago Press, 1995).