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What I Found in My Grandfather’s Hundreds of Journals

May 20, 2019 | 831 videos
Video by Colin Levy

When Byron Levy died at 94, he left something of himself behind. Years later, his grandson Colin Levy would discover it—and, in turn, get to meet his grandfather again.

The younger Levy came to call it the “memory book.” But it wasn’t just one journal—it was hundreds, filled to the brim with thousands of illustrations, anecdotes, inventions, thoughts, dreams, adventures, misadventures, and historical events filtered through the lens of one family. It was an impressionistic retrospective that began in early childhood and spanned three generations. It was a lifetime of memories, and the memory of an inner life.

In his short documentary My Grandfather’s Memory Book, Levy takes us on an animated journey through notable chapters of Byron’s journals. Together with Byron’s drawings, the film’s hand-drawn visuals paint the story of a wildly creative man whose obsessive chronicling of his own life lent him a kind of immortality.

“I think for him, creativity was a way of thinking and being and navigating life,” Levy told me. “The impression my grandfather gave me about this stuff is that creativity can give one a sense of agency in life. If you feed your creativity with exploration and expression and vulnerability, it feeds you back. It's nourishing and valuable to spend time making stuff.”

Levy treasures his grandfather’s sketchbooks not only for the information they have provided about Byron’s life, but also for their unique subjectivity. “They're filled almost exclusively with markings he made with his own hand, based on things he saw with his own eyes and thoughts he was experiencing in his head,” Levy said. “It's so wonderful to get to experience moments from his life through his point of view. You can really sense him observing, feeling, and thinking as you flip through the pages.”

When he initially set out to make the film, Levy was concerned that his grandfather’s life wouldn’t be of interest to anyone outside the Levy family. He’s glad to admit that he was wrong.

“By far the most surprising thing about this whole experience is how much the film seems to have resonated with a general audience,” Levy said. Since publishing the film, he’s received hundreds of heartfelt messages and emails from people who were touched by the memory book and resolved to create one of their own. “I've heard it said before, but I guess I had to learn this one myself: Sometimes the work that's most personal to you is also the most universal.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.