Alcoholics Anonymous is the largest self-help recovery group on the planet, and has been since it founded the group-therapy niche. However, despite a long and illustrious history of helping people to move past alcohol addiction and alcoholism, AA and its 12-step method has recently fallen under criticism, largely that program focuses on a higher power and that the literature is old fashioned.

It is true that the “Big Book” or “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism” has not been greatly updated since it was first written in 1939. This is a valid concern for many, and it is something to consider before seeking out help or joining an AA meeting.

We reviewed the history of AA, the significance and merit of the literature, as well as bias and historical problems caused by potentially outdated literature to give you an overview of how Alcoholics Anonymous nearly 80-year-old literature will affect sobriety and recovery.

A Short History of AA

Alcoholics Anonymous was first founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio. The group was a progression of a local Christian group, the Oxford Group, which was designed to help participants get in touch with their spirituality and God, with rules and guidance to help towards that aim. Members Ebby Thatcher and Bill Wilson found that the spirituality found through the group enabled them to focus on a higher power rather than drinking and were able to use it to stop their alcoholism.

Despite Wilson’s own success, his efforts to convert others were met with skepticism from doctors at the time, with Wilson’s own doctor suggesting that he abandon teaching spirituality and move towards using science to treat alcoholism. In June of 1935, Wilson met Dr. Robert Smith, an Oxford Group member, and was able to convert him to sobriety. By 1937, Wilson and Robert Smith separated from the Oxford Group, forming their own group based on using spirituality to overcome addiction to alcohol.

The “Big Book”

By 1939, Wilson and Dr. Smith had achieved success with over 100 patients, who were recovering and happily dedicated to the cause of AA. The two chose to sit down with their recovering patients to write a book to share the method, to help others use it to achieve sobriety.

The book was originally published in 1939 with 164 pages, titled “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism”. It was here that AA first got its name, and the basics of AA life including meetings, the 12-step program, and the guidance were first outlined. In the second half of the book, Wilson and Smith included personal stories, which have been edited, updated, and removed in future versions.

By 1946, Alcoholics Anonymous had grown exponentially, and Wilson had formulated and solidified the 12 Steps. These and other rules were outlined in the 1946 edition of the Big Book, and have been left largely unchanged ever since.

Updates to the Big Book – While the original content of the Big Book has been left largely unchanged since 1946, the book itself has grown. Originally just 165 pages, the current edition of “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism” is over 400 pages in length. Newer material has been added and updated over time to include more modern personal stories, modern information, and a wider worldview to accommodate the more than 1 million AA members. However, the core of AA literature remains the same as it was in 1946.

How Does Old-Fashioned Literature Affect AA?

If you have attended an AA meeting, then you have some idea of how literature plays a part in the experience of AA. If you have not, most local groups allow you to sit in or join as a guest, even if you do not intend to join the group.

Not Literature Based– While AA does include literature such as pamphlets, the 12 Steps, and the Big Book, the group is primarily based on actions, speaking, and sharing. While you may be asked to read the Big Book as a member, a large portion of the group is based on meeting and sharing with others. This means that the literature does have a minimal impact on the structure of the group.


Spirituality – While many types of addiction recovery are based on science, AA has retained its focus on spirituality from day one. While AA faces criticism for this today, the group has faced that same criticism since before the founding of the group. This eliminates many of the problems that would arise if the book were largely focused on the science of recovery from alcoholism. For example, when recovering from his own alcoholism in 1939, Wilson was treated with Belladonna, an outdated and dangerous practice. Because the book focuses on unchanging ideas of spirituality and acceptance of a higher power, the vast majority of the material remains as useful today as it was then.

Issues Caused by Age

The Big Book does suffer from a number of issues caused by age and an old-fashioned worldview.

  • Patronizing – The tone and style of much of the first 10 chapters of the Big Book are largely patronizing tone. While offensive and irritating now, this tone was the accepted medical tone to use in the 1930s, before it became appropriate to talk to a patient like a friend. This can make the book difficult to read and can make it much more difficult for new readers to understand the messages.
  • Narrow World View – The original version of the Big Book was largely written by white men, typically between their mid 20s and mid 50s. As a result, the book heavily focuses on their experiences, needs, and worldview. This can be very off putting ot readers who do not fit into this demographic. The current language fails to acknowledge women, persons of color, LGTBQ+ members, or the psychological reasons behind alcohol abuse. However, this information is tackled in the meetings and topics discussed during the meetings, but not in the book.
  • Christianity – While modern editions of the Big Book have been updated to refer to a higher power of your own understanding, AA was very much written around the Christian God, by white Christian men. The Book constantly refers to God, discussing him in the same way that he is discussed in the Bible. While AA is largely accepting of non-Christian members, even encouraging participants to seek out their own higher power, the literature remains highly Christianity centric.

A great deal of “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism” is dated, centered on white men, and often written in an outdated style that can be difficult to read. Many people agree that it could use updates, even in the first 164 pages, which have traditionally been left untouched. However, doing so would require a large consensus from every branch of AA, which would be a very large undertaking.

How Does Outdated Content Affect AA?

While AA’s literature is outdated in some aspects, the group remains one of the most successful self-help groups and one of the most successful groups for preventing long-term relapse. In one study, it was shown that the more meetings users attended, the less likely their chances of relapse, and that most users who continued to attend meetings remained sober after a 3, 5, and 16 year follow up. Another showed that the 12-step approach, including the highly criticized ‘acceptance of higher power’ facilitated higher meeting attendance, creating a better outcome for the recovering addict. Studies show that AA attendance is able to decrease the risk of returning to alcohol usage for patients in remission, making it an ideal choice for recovering addicts.

Alcoholics Anonymous has faced a lot of criticism on every front since its inception, but with consistent results in helping participants to stay sober, the group undoubtedly works. While AA literature, including the first 10 chapters of The Big Book could use updates, AA focuses on meetings and sharing rather than simply learning, which helps to bridge the gap between the old and the new.