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Chautauqua lectures revitalize the mind

On a recent morning, I shut off my 2-by-2-inch smartphone to do something old-fashioned: listen to a person at a podium. Using nothing more than the familiar voice that has narrated thousands of stories at National Public Radio over the years, Susan Stamberg made a case for the importance of the arts in our harried lives.

These days, PowerPoint slides seem to be eclipsing the simple power of one person addressing an audience. Few speakers, it seems, trust themselves to simply tell a story or share their insights without high-tech props.

Yet this type of unadorned lecture occurs daily at the Chautauqua Institution, where I spend my summers. It's a challenge to make myself unplug, and also to make myself sit still on the legendarily uncomfortable benches in Chautauqua's Amphitheater. My discomfort, however, is rewarded in surprising ways.

In her talk, Stamberg's medium became as important as her message. Her spare delivery, absent of visual images, made her ideas resonate more.

Stamberg, currently a special correspondent for NPR's "Morning Edition," talked about the importance of visiting an art museum as a way to step back from the constant updates about tragedies in the world. Music functioned in a similar way, she said. As NPR listeners know, broadcasts are interspersed with clips of music to give people a mental pause, however brief, before the news returns. Art of all kinds refreshes the mind, she said.

Stamberg might have added that a well-presented lecture refreshes the mind, too. The constant vibrations and chimes of smartphones and other pocket technology make me jittery. The lecture forced me to turn off the distractions, focus and listen deeply. It's different from reading or hearing a voice on the radio. It's also different from a conversation. The reward is absorbing new ideas directly from a person who speaks with knowledge and passion.

I like to use my phone to check my messages and text my children as much as the next baby boomer. I didn't realize its constant intrusion until I had to turn it off.

I have let a screen become a constant mediator of my experiences in real time. How liberating to set it aside and listen to a wise voice like that of Stamberg or another of the lecturers who come to Chautauqua each season.

Over the years, I have heard documentary-maker Ken Burns talk about how he builds a narrative from fragments of history, such as letters and songs. I have also heard Salman Rushdie humbly describe his false starts before finding his now-famous narrative voice.

Diplomats, foreign policy experts, journalists and professors all bring their singular voices to the summer-long exploration of ideas. I learn from hearing them directly -- not from watching them on television or YouTube. As a society, we will lose an important human connection when we no longer have the time or attention span for a public address.

Poet William Stafford, whose life ended at the dawn of the Internet age, once described a voice as "something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk." Live, real-time listening to another voice is indeed important. It keeps us from growing remote from one another.

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Clara Silverstein, a summer resident of Mayville, is director of the Chautauqua Writers' Center and the author of four books.