What do John Calvin, Sarah Palin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Bon Iver have in common? A preoccupation with sincerity. Anxiety over the art and artlessness of being true to oneself, and others, is centuries old. With deep historical perspective and a brilliant contemporary spin, R.Jay Magill tells the beguiling tale of sincerity’s theological past, its current emotional resonance, and the deep impact it has had on the Western soul.
Though skeptics from Oscar Wilde to Steven Colbert have demonstrated the importance of a sophisticated, satirical stance toward sincerity, the ideal persists in many hearts and minds, and often for good reason. From Puritan conversion experiences to modern art’s obsession with insanity, from Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince to Francois de la Rouchefoucauld’s Maxims, from Romanticism to modernism to hipsterism -- Sincerity limns the abiding desire to shed the affectations of society and reveal the pure, sincere core within us all. (The “Hipster Semiotic Appendix” brings the discussion up to date with a fashion analysis both trenchant and hilarious.)
Magill fearlessly navigates history, religion, art, and politics with wit and style to create a portrait of an ideal that, despite its abuses, remains a strange magnetic north in our secular moral compass.
Praise for Sincerity
A Wall Street Journal Top-Ten Nonfiction Book of 2012; a New York Times Editors' Choice (August 2012), and a Library Journal bestselling philosophy book of 2012
“R. Jay Magill’s writing is sincerely addictive. Revelatory, intelligent, funny, and surprising, this is serious scholarship that’s also really, really fun to read.”— Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia! and 2012 Pulitzer-Prize nominee
“Sincerity is a serious and engaging cultural history painted on an admirably large canvas, yet Magill is careful not to take himself too seriously, as evidenced in his snarky asides and chatty footnotes. He wraps up on an eminently reasonable note: society needs both sincerity and insincerity. You can’t go too far in either direction: neither the frothy superficiality of court society nor the deadly purposefulness of the French Revolution. Who can argue with that?”— Laura Kipnis, New York Times Book Review
“A fascinating cultural survey and intellectual investigation….Mr. Magill's range is extraordinary, and his wit, erudition, and powers of observation give credence to [his] judgments. [Sincerity is] deeply pleasurable…delightful.”— Daniel Akst, The Wall Street Journal
“Intriguing. . . . Magill agilely traces his subject through the ages…elegantly assembles an enormous amount of material… [and his] parsing of our contemporary attitude—starting in the 1980s—is particularly fascinating.”— Rachel Shteir, The New Republic
“This is a book that adds sincerity to the list of modern qualities worth serious attention, offering nuanced definitions and a solid connection between past causation and current manifestations. It casts new light on modern art broadly construed, amplifying some of the key interactions and tensions between popular arts and the wider society.”—Peter N. Stearns, Provost, George Mason University, The American Interest
“A wide-ranging and penetrating cultural inquiry.”— Booklist (starred review)
“A sophisticated meditation…a rewarding read…[Magill writes with] scholarliness, humor, and humanity….Two recently deceased men who knew about sincerity and silliness, Christopher Hitchens and Maurice Sendak, would approve of the whole enterprise….Anti-intellectuals need not apply.”— Library Journal
“Energetic…well-researched…Magill proves most lively as he brings the reader up to date; his Hipster Semiotic Appendix demonstrates his acuity and sense of humor.”— Publishers Weekly
“An illumination of the shifting attitudes and ambivalence toward a value that society claims to hold in high esteem….Sincerity proves to be a richer topic than readers might initially suspect.”— Kirkus Reviews
Listen to R. Jay Magill read the first few paragraphs of of Chapter One.