Sam Posey’s Playing with Trains will not reveal anything new to anyone already involved in the hobby of model railroading, but for the general reader it’s a reasonably good, and evocatively written, introduction to the state of the hobby.
Posey, a former race car driver and a sports commentator, spends the first half of the book on his own model railroading history, from his childhood, with his mother helping him build his first layout, to his adulthood, when he hired someone to build his expansive Colorado Midland layout with his family. (My father read the book while he was visiting, and sniffed, as many in the hobby would, at the notion that he paid someone else to build his layout.)
The second half of the book is a new-journalism-style look at the state of the hobby, with Posey visiting a number of luminaries of the field — none of whom will be unfamiliar to anyone who’s been reading Model Railroader for the last couple of decades — and talking about their approaches. This part is a little light, a little superficial, but its great strength is crystallizing a schism in the hobby that I was only dimly aware of myself: the schism between the operators who focus on simulating, in miniature and in precise detail, the work — and paperwork — undertaken by real railroads (think Tony Koester) at the expense of scenery, and those focused on jaw-dropping scenery at the expense of realistic operations (think Malcolm Furlow, or even George Selios).
Most of us, naturally, are somewhere in the middle: we’d like to do more than run trains around in a loop, but we’d like to do more than run them on bare plywood. The Koester mode is in the ascendancy at the moment, to the extent that his book on layout design elements isn’t about the elements’ function in the abstract, it’s about replicating real things: for example, not about understanding how an interchange works in theory, but in copying a real interchange. This is a considerable change from the Armstrong mode, where understanding how real railroads work is the necessary first step, not simply slavishly replicating what really existed (without, I suspect, necessarily understanding why it existed).