After Wikipedia and its endless garden of forking hyperlinked paths, through which we can create our own DIY knowledge webs, why bother reading longform nonfiction at all? The usual answer is for the narrative itself—turning a database of information into a story created by one curatorial mind. That narrative “humanizes” the world of fact, to use a word that makes me cringe, is a deep cliché about nonfiction that also happens to be true.
But more than organizing and shedding light on the world, some nonfiction can also do what Wikipedia—and TED talks, and those “short introductions”—can’t: provide a comprehensive, carefully culled archaeology, Michel Foucault’s word for historical analysis of systems of thought that consider how intellectual terms come into being, how they engage the public imagination and how they are deployed in relationship to systems of power. R. Jay Magill, Jr.’s history of sincerity in Western culture does just this; as he historicizes a moral and aesthetic value that is often understood to be a natural or transparent quality of speech or just “being,” Magill also keeps one eye turned to how such a seemingly benign concept organizes our relation to the social and the political.
In the introduction to “Sincerity: How a moral ideal born five hundred years ago inspired religious wars, modern art, hipster chic, and the curious notion that we ALL have something to say (no matter how dull),” R. Jay Magill invokes Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck’s 2010 calls for sincerity in political candidates—a trope whose irony (we want our politicians to be sincere, though we know they aren’t, and we also know that it doesn’t really matter in the least what their interiority is) has long been discussed. But this is only the launching pad to a truly exciting history of a notion of frankness and joining the inner and the outer human self that’s deeply important to think about in the time of Facebook.
Beginning with the Reformation and ending with “The 48 Laws of Power,” Magill has also constructed a slightly quirky history of almost all major moments in Western cultural history, including: the crisis of modern art, Freud and the conception of the unconscious, Romanticism and revolution, hipster culture (probably the weakest chapter, but still as well-done as anything written by n+1 on the subject), advertising, bohemia, the birth of the cool. As Magill’s carefully researched, lively prose—full of anecdotes and quips without being too self-satisfied—slowly begins to outline the value of authenticity and sincerity in culture, a pattern emerges: we are always already living at a moment when we believe we are living at a time of extreme falseness and cynicism and need to begin anew in search of new kinds of authenticity, even if we know this quest is impossible. By the end of the book, the framing of Magill’s project as a study of “sincerity” seems almost beside the point: it’s the care with which he suggests patterns of cultural dialectic, without being at all dogmatic or theoretical, that marks this book’s brilliance. (Monica Westin)
“Sincerity: How a moral ideal born five hundred years ago inspired religious wars, modern art, hipster chic, and the curious notion that we ALL have something to say (no matter how dull)“
By R. Jay Magill, Jr.
W.W. Norton & Company, 272 pages, $26