by R. Jay Magill, Jr.
W.W. Norton & Company, 2012, 272 pp., $25.95
Sincerity is an elusive quality, in real life and as a subject for inquiry. At least in some societies, American society definitely among them, successful social interactions depend to some extent on one’s ability to gauge sincerity, and many individuals are encouraged to test their own sincerity quotient as a key component of personal integrity. Yet sincerity is tough to handle. Too much of it can be crippling: Who wants unalloyed honesty all the time? Undue reliance on it can confuse pure intentions with wise or realistic courses of action. Sincerity is not the same thing as good judgment, yet we often mingle and conflate the two. Even assessing sincerity in personal interactions can be tough. A recent study suggests that computers are better than people at interpreting facial signals, such as smiles, to discern intent. And, of course, we engage one another increasingly more often in virtual as opposed to face-to-face settings. What implications for sincerity flow from that?
Sincerity represents, then, both a tough topic and a really important one, from social and personal standpoints alike. Add to this the fact that sincerity also offers a very interesting history, with some decisively modern and probably decisively Western and American ingredients, and all the makings of a really intriguing study are ready to hand. Significance, complexity and historical causation; I was salivating before I even got my review copy.
In many respects, R. Jay Magill, Jr.’s Sincerity delivers nicely. Its strengths are several. It correctly locates sincerity as an important feature of American culture, including political culture. It probes the origins of the impulse, so we get a genuine sense of why this peculiar quality began to assume such importance. As an historian, I’m a sucker for analysis that connects present to past in mutually enlightening ways, and sincerity offers an unexpected source for that analysis. This recurrently shows the advantages and disadvantages of trusting to sincerity, and it does so without misleading oversimplification, thus encouraging readers to think more fully and deeply about the concept. Finally, Magill’s historical assessment connects sincerity to modern art, and thence to pop culture, in revealing ways, opening another important avenue for contemplation. All of this is delivered in a readable style with lots of stimulating examples, past and present. Any book that tries to incorporate figures as diverse as John Calvin, Nietzsche and Sarah Palin must, I think, have a lively and imaginative intellect behind it.
In several respects, however, the book falls a bit...