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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Playing with Trains

Currently I’m halfway through reading Playing with Trains: A Passion Beyond Scale, a memoir by Sam Posey. There’s a certain irony to the title. The word “passion” is accurate, for this book is truly about Posey’s deep enthusiasm and passion for building a model railroad layout. He spent 6000 hours on it, so it had better be a labor of enthusiasm and passion! But the word “playing” is largely ironic: the 16 years during which he devoted intense work to building his layout were anything but play.

Playing with Trains is not only about Posey’s passion for layout design and construction, but also about his family; many passages in this book are about model railroading as a family endeavor. Posey also writes about other aspects of his life, including his career as an architect and builder and his simultaneous career as a race car driver and ABC sportscaster.

The most poignant parts of what I’ve read so far concern his battles with Parkinson’s disease, which destroyed his ABC job and deeply affected his attitude toward model railroading. There’s a subtle and unnamed connection between Parkinson’s Disease and Parkinson’s Law in the chapter I just finished reading. (These are two different Parkinsons: James and Northcote.) Knowing that his degenerative disease would probably cut his life short and would almost certainly end his ability to build a model railroad long before he died, Posey vowed to prolong the projected completion date of the layout. But what if he wanted to spend four years and there was only one year’s worth of work? He realizes that the amount of work would expand to fill the time available for its completion, so there was nothing to worry about.

The real question is whether you have to be a model railroader to enjoy this well-written book. I think not. It’s perfectly possibly to become engaged in reading any work that portrays its author’s knowledge and passion, even about a subject in which the reader has no particular interest. This often happens in fiction — the works of Dick Francis come to mind, which captivate all readers, including those of us with absolutely no interest in horse-racing — and it can sometimes happen in non-fiction as well. It does here.

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