By Maria Popova
Aug 11, 2014
“Avoid socks. They are a fatal giveaway of a phony nonconformist.”
“Why do you have to be a nonconformist like everybody else?,” James Thurber asked in the caption to a 1958 New Yorker cartoon depicting a woman fed up with her artist partner. It remains unknown whether the cartoon itself, or this cultural dismay shared by some of the era’s counterculture thinkers, inspired the 1968 gem How To Be a Nonconformist (public library) by Elissa Jane Karg. One could easily imagine that if Edward Gorey, master of pen-and-ink irreverence, and Patti Smith, godmother of punk-rock, had collaborated, this would’ve been the result. But what’s most impressive is that Karg was only sixteen at the time, a self-described “cynical & skeptical junior at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Connecticut,” qualified to examine nonconformity as “an angry and amused observer” of her “cool contemporaries.”
With her irresistibly wonderful black-and-white drawings and hand-lettered text, which originally appeared in her school newspaper and were eventually published by Scholastic, she offers 22 rules for becoming “a bona fide nonconformist,” poking fun at so many archetypes still strikingly prevalent — perhaps even amplified — today: the misunderstood artist-hipster, the troll grubbing for clout by spewing curmudgeonly comments, the protester-for-the-sake-of-protesting, the musician flaunting her mental health issues as a badge of genius. Rather than derision, however, Karg’s subtler message is a reminder that, as Toni Morrison memorably wrote in Beloved, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” that a full life is about “allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold,” and that adhering to any prescriptive mode of living, even if it’s one that rejects the herd of mainstream culture, only flattens us into caricatures of our complete selves and transforms us into a herd of a different kind, one the cultural critic Harold Rosenberg famously called “the herd of independent minds.”
Karg, in true counter-nonconformist fashion, didn’t end up moving to New York City and commodify her brand of creative cynicism. Instead, she moved to Detroit, had two daughters, joined the socialist party, became a nurse, and led an earnest life as an avid advocate for women’s rights on the cusp of the second wave of feminism. Tragically, though perhaps poetically given her life choices, she was killed in 2008 at the age of 57 while riding her bicycle back from a socialist party meeting. She never authored another book, but did co-author the 1980 handbook Stopping Sexual Harassment.
Immeasurably wonderful, How To Be a Nonconformist is long out of print but surviving copies of it can be found online. Complement it with Exactitudes, the modern-day photo-anthropological record of the cultural phenomenon Karg satirizes.