Like most rare-book dealers, William H. Schaberg of Athena Rare Books in Fairfield, Conn., focuses on a specific niche for his business, following his passion and finding what he calls “important works in the history of ideas—the majority of which are philosophy books.” Schaberg is known as the go-to guy for authenticating first editions of works by Descartes, Locke, Nietzsche, Spinoza, and more.
Schaberg’s literary passion for important historical texts extends to what he says is “one of the most significant spiritual movements” of the 20th century: Alcoholics Anonymous. In 2001, he purchased at auction a multilithed prepublication copy of Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Hundreds of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism—the title commonly referred to as the Big Book. That purchase launched Schaberg’s investigation into the early history of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, nearly two decades later, he has published his own book: Writing the Big Book: The Creation of A.A.
The Big Book, written by William G. Wilson—aka Bill W.—and first published in 1939, laid the foundation for the 12-step movement that revolutionized addiction treatment and helped millions of people get and stay sober. With more than 37 million copies sold, the Big Book is one of the bestselling works of all time. It has been translated into 43 languages and was named by the Library of Congress in 2012 as one of the 88 “Books that Shaped America.”
Willson, who founded Alcoholics Anonymous and was the visionary behind the creation of the Big Book, was an inveterate drinker who underwent a spiritual awakening in December 1934 and developed a program that kept him sober for the rest of his life. He then refined the insights, ideas, and practices that became AA’s foundational principles.
“First of all, he diagnosed the problem as the alcoholic’s inability to refuse the first drink,” Schaberg says. “Alcoholism wasn’t a psychological problem or a failure of will power or a moral lapse of some sort. Wilson’s solution to his understanding of that problem was equally direct and simple. It was to guide the alcoholic—through a 12-step program of recovery—toward his or her own ‘vital spiritual experience.’”
When Schaberg purchased the multilith copy of the Big Book at auction, his interest in AA was purely practical. He wanted to answer some basic questions about his newly acquired book: How many had been privately printed? Just how rare was it? This eventually brought him to the
AA archives, which contain a veritable treasure trove of previously unreported data. “The tremendous amount of unmined information I discovered was staggering,” he says. “That led to my decision to write a book covering just 18 months of AA history: from the first time they said, ‘Hey, we should write a book!’ until the day the book was actually published. It was amazing; the more I researched, the more great details I uncovered.”
Schaberg was surprised to learn that “the stories Bill Wilson always told about AA’s early years were more parables and myths than anything approaching historical fact.” In fact, he says, “the true story of the evolution and founding of AA is far more miraculous and inspiring.”
Schaberg meticulously details the twists and turns of those early years and shines a light on the formerly unacknowledged importance of early AA member Hank Parkhurst. “After Bill Wilson, Parkhurst is without a doubt the most important man in the formulation of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous and then the packaging of that program into a book,” Schaberg says. “The Big Book would never have been written and published without Hank’s constant pushing and prodding of Bill Wilson to get the job done. And throughout this whole process, Hank was always arguing for his own point of view.”
Ultimately, Schaberg hopes readers will find his history of the Big Book inspirational, positive, and uplifting. And he hopes that, in its own way, the book sup- ports the work of Alcoholics Anonymous. “Who wouldn’t be proud,” he says, “to be part of a movement with such wonderfully human roots and such an amazingly miraculous backstory?”