Why I Abridged a Self-Help Masterpiece

Is it Heresy to Create a Digest-Sized Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous? Not if it Saves Lives.

The following is my introduction to a new abridgment of the original 1939 edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, published by Gildan Audio.

You are about to encounter an abridgment of probably the greatest work of modern self-help. That Alcoholics Anonymous has saved and revitalized countless lives since its initial publication in 1939 does not require excessive restatement here. More important is that some readers who have experienced the power of this book would understandably chafe at the notion of its abridgment. To some, Alcoholics Anonymous is a work of almost Scriptural significance, and condensing it can seem like an act of heresy, if not cynicism.

I can promise you that my motive is neither. As a writer, historian, and seeker, I approach this book on bended knee, and with deepest gratitude. I consider it the most effective program of spiritual self-help of the past hundred years, and perhaps beyond. My intent in condensing this work is not to replace or sidestep the complete version of the “Big Book,” which I encourage you to read. My aim, rather, is to supply a resource for people who may be unready to dive into the Big Book but can be induced by this shorter and equally faithful journey. This condensed edition is also for veterans of the Big Book who wish to review or reencounter its core points. Whatever brings you to this edition, you can experience its ideas in about an hour of reading or listening. Is the length of a lunch break, or a morning commute, too much to dedicate to a philosophy of self-development that can change everything for you, or for someone you love?

Alcoholics Anonymous was written for alcoholics and their loved ones — but it is not for them alone. As readers and self-improvers have repeatedly discovered, the “twelve steps” of Alcoholics Anonymous, which are described in chapter four, are a blueprint that can be applied to virtually life-depleting habit or compulsion, such as anger, gambling, drugs, debt-spending, or chronic overeating. Although the book was written by and for those who struggle with alcohol, nearly any term or problem, like the ones I just named, can be substituted wherever the word alcohol appears.

What is an addiction? The brilliant actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, told a friend that “addiction is when you do the thing you really, really most don’t want to be doing.” Whatever repeatedly derails your life, threatens your health, and distracts you from your finest and highest tasks, represents an addiction or compulsion. The twelve-step program can direct you to fuller (and safer) existence, whatever the problem that keeps you from it.

As I consider the responsibility of abridging a work that has saved lives, reassembled broken households, and redirected people from paths leading to illness and despair, I am reminded of a recent exchange I had with a successful self-help writer. He told me that he didn’t regard himself as a self-help writer at all. He considered the label gauche, and called most self-help books a sham.

In my twenty years as a writer, publisher, and user of self-help philosophies, I have heard that attitude often. It comes not infrequently from self-help writers themselves, some of whom aspire to traditional conceptions of literary recognition, and fear that the label detracts from their respectability or seriousness. I have also, and more often, heard such judgments from people who are looking for reasons to avoid books like this one, suspecting that its program will remake them into ineffectual, woo-woo automatons, unsuited to the rigors of commerce, artistry, or professionalism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This book provides a restoration of the path toward life — and away from pettiness, compulsion, and self-destruction. Its path is, unashamedly, one of power. Not the kind of ersatz power that we seek from our self-will. If will power worked, there would be no addicts or alcoholics. Rather, this book directs you toward the power derived from having a relationship with the Highest Source of life. Do you reject or have difficulty conceiving of a Higher Power? That is no barrier to entry. The authors of Alcoholics Anonymous dealt with the question of belief in an intellectually serious and non-dogmatic way. They placed no ideological tollgate in front of anyone seeking help. They asked only for sincerity of intent.

In any case, my point is not to sell you on the effectiveness of this or any self-help program. Only you can make that evaluation. Rather, I wish to encourage you, as you begin this book, to understand that labels are secondary and ideas alone matter. The only measure of a practical philosophy is its efficacy. A high-sounding ethical or spiritual idea that doesn’t work for the individual is worse than useless.

One word of caution: The methods and principles in this book reveal themselves only to someone who approaches them with deep seriousness. The requirements of the twelve-steps are simple but not cheap. They call for a special kind of dedication, a willingness to work with others, and a policy of zero-tolerance for cynicism, eye-rolling, or self-justification. If you can bring that kind of the commitment to the table, the twelve-steps will serve you as a life-changing resource. Of that much I am certain.

Mitch Horowitz is a PEN Award-winning historian and the author of books including Occult America and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. The Washington Post says Mitch “treats esoteric ideas and movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness that is too often lost in today’s raised-voice discussions.” Visit him at www.MitchHorowitz.com or @MitchHorowitz.