Even given my association with the Freecycle movement, I admit I’m still something of a pack rat when it comes to books and magazines — I’m better than I used to be, but I could stand to get rid of a fair amount of prose even I admit I’ll probably never seriously read through again. But I’ll never part with one slim volume that’s been in my possession for, gad, nearly 40 years now, and has lost none of its charm.
Those of you of a certain age will remember, in your school days, ordering inexpensive books by mail order from Scholastic Book Services. Oh, the excitement when the teacher would distribute the little paperbacks in class several weeks later. Nearly all the books I ordered from SBS are long vanished and forgotten, but not How To Be a Nonconformist, by Elissa Jane Karg. My yellowed but intact edition is the first printing, dated December 1968 (the original, non-SBS printing came out in 1967). In its satirical deconstruction of ’60s hippie/alternative culture centered around Greenwich Village (when alternative types could still reasonably expect to be able to afford living there), complete with artful, painstakingly rendered pen-and-ink drawings and lettering by the teenaged author, it was probably the first prolonged exposure to satire my spongelike nine-year-old brain had encountered. I ate up lines like, “Nonconformists smile only sarcastic & sardonic smiles,” “Nonconformists are cynical and questioning & consistently negative,” and “Playing in a band is cool. The more embittered & loud your songs are, the better,” as Elissa Jane Karg articulated concepts I was only beginning to intuit, decoding the secret rituals and belief systems of the mysterious hippie culture of the older Boomers, eight or ten or twelve years my senior. Even then, I thought a lot of it was silly. She did, too, and unlike almost all of her peers, she got the reason right.
Karg’s ultimate point, of course, was that if everybody does the nonconformist thing in exactly the same way, they’re as conformist as the people they’re rebelling against; in such circumstances, the real nonconformist is the person who embraces the square and the reactionary, or at least a short haircut (if you’re a boy) and eschewing flower-print dresses (if you’re a girl). Sort of a template for embryonic punk rockers, if you really want to push things.
Over the years I’d occasionally thumb through the little book and wonder what had become of Elissa Jane Karg, and a few years ago I surfed the Web and found that an Elissa Karg was the co-author of a book called Stopping Sexual Harassment: A Handbook for Union and Workplace Activists, and was apparently also a freelance writer in the Detroit area, reviewing restaurants for the Metro Times, an alternative weekly in that city.
Today, for reasons too boring to go into, I decided to Google Ms. Karg again and found that, wonder of wonders, How To Be a Nonconformist had been recently reprinted by a company called ONZO Media in Edina, Minnesota. You can buy a copy here for $10, which is 20 times more than my original purchase price of 50 cents in 1968 but still, I think, a fair bargain. (You can even order a highly cool T-shirt using Karg’s original drawings.)
Unfortunately, I also discovered that the Metro Times had also reported that Elissa Karg had died from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident.
Only a month before.
The Metro Times story reads:
<<Karg, who wrote for MT from the late ’90s until a few years ago, was a lifelong socialist who moved to Detroit in the early 1970s to become an organizer for the United Farm Workers during the grape boycott. She was briefly an autoworker before becoming a nurse for the homebound for 25 years. Karg also received a journalism degree from Wayne State University and is the author of the pamphlet Stopping Sexual Harassment: A Handbook for Union and Workplace Activists and the comical How to be a Non-Conformist, which she wrote in high school and was recently reprinted.>>
Elissa Karg, who was 57, leaves two daughters and one granddaughter.
How had she made that journey from promising young artist and writer, and editor of the literary magazine at her high school in Norwalk, Connecticut, to being a sometime auto worker, nurse, activist and restaurant reviewer in Detroit?
In the past, I occasionally thought about sending an e-mail to her and letting her know how much I liked her book, and how much of an early influence it was on me — in my thinking, in my writing, even in my general way of looking at the world. I’m really sorry, now, that I never followed through.
Rest in peace, Ms. Karg. You saw it clearly, and you walked it like you talked it.