Now Reading: The girl who can’t feel pain, Robert De Niro, book publishing, women on TV

‘Now Reading’ is a collection and sharing of online stories and is meant for minimal consumption by the few readers of this blog. Topics will include books, food, matters of culture, photography, media and technology … there are no rules. Have a story to add? Share it in the comments.

The pain-free Ashlyn Blocker

All of the following links are from the most recent New York Times Magazine, and this is Justin Heckert’s cover story on Ashlyn Blocker, a 13-year-old girl from Georgia who doesn’t feel pain. She has singed the skin off her palms without crying. When she was a baby, her mother would wrap her hands in gauze to prevent her from chewing on them. It took two days before her parents noticed Ashlyn had broken her ankle – because she spent those two days running around as if nothing was wrong.

It’s incredible work by Heckert and a fascinating story of the role pain plays in our lives and the damning side-effects if we are granted the superpower countless kids dream of having. Two things in particular are thrilling to me. First, the idea that Ashlyn has to teach herself what “hurt” is and what things in life cause “hurt” – putting your hand on a hot stove, spraining your knee, chopping your hand off (no, Ashlyn wouldn’t feel that). The scariest part is internal hurt, specifically internal bleeding. Ashlyn can feel pressure, so I suppose it’s possible she can feel swelling if it occurs (although, maybe not). But is that too late? Does she have to constantly monitor her body in the mirror to look for bruises, lumps, signs of danger that have escaped her sense of feeling?

The second thing is how an inability to physically feel may or may not affect the ability to emotionally feel. By all accounts, Ashlyn feels empathy and sympathy and other normal human emotions. But scientists are monitoring her to see how she develops as she enters puberty and great hormonal changes alter her body as she matures. It’s a fascinating question that I have no idea how to even begin to answer: Can we experience the full range of human of emotion if we can’t feel physical pain? Does the lack of physical pain alter how our mind perceives events that create great emotional pain to others? I’ll be interested to read future stories and studies on Ashlyn to see what doctors find.

Talking films and long careers with Robert De Niro

I enjoyed this A.O. Scott interview with Robert De Niro. They talk about De Niro’s latest film, “Silver Linings Playbook,” but the most interesting parts of the interview are when De Niro reflects on the actor-director relationship and how, through many years in film, he’s still motivated to produce a great volume of work. De Niro tries to watch as many movies as possible, but it seems he falls a couple years behind (because he’s constantly being sent films to review).

I’d love to sit and watch a movie with De Niro – what does he see? Is it possible to watch a film just for the pure enjoyment of it after you’ve spent a whole career making and dissecting and evaluating them? Is there a nagging voice that never leaves De Niro, a low-pitch tone that is self-directing the film as he watches? We need to know these things.

Is book publishing the next U.S. Steel?

This is an interesting piece on book publishing and how there’s a fear that, as major publishing houses merge, this could all be headed towards another U.S. Steel. I think there is always a fear of the sleek, efficient company that produces its product overseas at a much cheaper rate, then peddles it for great profit in the United States, but publishing is interesting in the sense that, theoretically, anybody can be a publisher. Anybody can’t be a manufacturer of cars or televisions or computers. But with written work and digital avenues for “printing” that work, words have a way to trickle out into the marketplace.

Adam Davidson, the author of this piece, probably has it right when he says publishing will likely consist of many smaller, digitally inclined companies and then a couple major publishing houses that produce “big-ticket items.” It will be interesting to watch how Penguin-Random House, and other traditional publishing houses, adjust as more people use tablets and read on their phones. The tipping point could be when an established writer employs a digital publishing company to produce his or her book – and getting a higher percentage of revenue because of fewer costs – rather than going the ink-and-tree route. We are probably still a number of years away from any sort of seismic shift in the industry, though.

The “aging” women of television

This is a funny essay that is layered with complex truths and realities about women and television. I know nothing about being a woman and very little about aging, so I won’t offer any thoughts here. But the trend of younger women being cast into much older roles – e.g. a 26-year-old playing the part of a middle-aged wife and mother of two – is peculiar and interesting to study. I am nowhere near informed enough to comment on that trend, but I don’t like it. Watch a couple episodes of Nashville and tell me we don’t need more Connie Brittons in our lives.

Email: Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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