The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is a big deal and the original’s worth big bucks. Written mostly by William G. Wilson—aka Bill W, co-founder of AA—and first published in 1939, it lays out the 12-step method for addiction recovery. It’s one of the bestselling books ever; over 30 million copies sold in 43 languages.
The original printer’s copy, covered with handwritten notes and edits, is valued between $2 million and $3 million. It’s up for auction on June 8 and causing a kerfuffle.
AA tries to stay out of controversy as a policy but Alcoholics Anonymous World Services (AAWS) in New York, which runs the US and Canadian chapters of the organization, broke with tradition to sue in an effort to stop the auction.
In a complaint filed in New York state court on May 22, the organization named Ken Roberts (the current owner), auctioneers Profiles in History, and Questroyal Fine Arts, a New York gallery that recently displayed the manuscript ahead of the upcoming sale.
AAWS argues that it was bequeathed the printer’s copy in a notarized letter in 1979 by Barry Leach, a friend of Bill W’s widow, Lois Wilson, who gave him the book in 1978. The organization says that it was “expressly and irrevocably gifted” and is a critical piece of its history that was never meant to go on the market.
After Leach’s death in 1985, AAWS claims, it lost track of the manuscript due to the extreme negligence of Leach family members. In 2004, the printer’s copy resurfaced at Sotheby’s and was sold. Roberts, who is selling it now, bought it at a subsequent Sotheby’s auction in 2007 for $850,000.
AAWS wants to block the sale next month is demanding the original manuscript’s return. Its filing explains the gravity of the situation:
Commencing litigation is not something that AAWS generally does, since it focuses its energies on serving the fellowship and the still-suffering alcoholics. Perhaps even more importantly, the fact that a central tenet of AAWS’s principles is to avoid controversy underscores just how critical of a threat to its history and mission [it] views the current circumstances of a known public auction of the manuscript.
The organization’s attachment to the manuscript is understandable. The Big Book is a text (PDF) that the Library of Congress in 2012 named one of the 88 “Books that shaped America,” ranking it first in nonfiction. Profiles in History, which has declined to comment on the case, states that The Big Book is one of the most influential of the 20th century. Historian Ernest Kurtz—who wrote Not God, explaining the difference between spirituality in AA and an actual religion—called the book “the most important nonfiction manuscript in history.”
Millions of people around the world have relied on the tome to shake addiction. The 12-step method has been adopted and adapted to help people hooked on everything from heroin to sex to gambling. Many recovering alcoholics have a kind of religious reverence for The Big Book. To them, its message is priceless.