Books that changed my life: Peter Moore

Author Peter Moore chats to us about the books that changed his life

Peter Moore is a writer, journalist and lecturer. He teaches creative writing at City University and the University of Oxford.

 

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Edward Gibbon once spoke of his “early and invincible love of reading” which he would not exchange “for the treasures of India”. It’s an extravagant statement but I know just what he meant. “Invincible” might be the eye-catching word in the quote, but “early” is equally important. Despite not being from a very bookish family, I was somehow hooked at a very young age.

And no book from those years snared me quite like Treasure Island. I can still faintly hear the clack of the tavern sign at the Admiral Benbow Inn and I’ll never in this life be able to read the word “coracle” without picturing Jim Hawkins spinning helplessly in an offshore current, in a sea of the most perfect blue. Every few years I’ll find myself picking up my worn copy of Treasure Island and the richness of his characters, the boldness of their scheme and the white knuckle pace of Stevenson’s storytelling still casts its old irresistible spell.

 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I lived in Madrid for some years after university, working as a freelance journalist and more generally enjoying being carried to and fro on the tides of life. Back then I usually worked as a music journalist, writing gig reviews or profiles of whatever band or artist was in town. I’d never seriously considered just how far the journalistic form could be pushed until I bought a copy of Capote’s In Cold Blood one cold day during a visit to London.

Capote’s vision for the book as a “non-fiction novel” captivated me. I recall reading that curiously compelling opening line: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’”, in the empty Silver Cross pub on Whitehall. By page three, as Capote was describing the “four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives”, I was hooked. It’s a flawed book in several ways, but it carries such emotional force and it showed me the raw power of non-fiction.

 

How to Live: A life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

A few months after this encounter with In Cold Blood I was back in London having enrolled on a pioneering MA programme in non-fiction writing at City University. During the next two years—roughly 2008-2010—I learnt so much about the craft, possibilities and pitfalls of non-fiction writing.

I think of this now as a golden period for non-fiction with the publication of experimental texts like Alexander Master’s Stuart: a Life Backwards, Kate Summerscale’s Suspicions of Mr Whicher or Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder. My enduring favourite from this time, though, is Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live. It’s a jazzy, witty, sparkling biography of the French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Bakewell’s clever twist is to abandon the cradle to grave structure for something for more exciting and illuminating. She zones in on a recurring theme in Montaigne’s writing: the puzzle of “How to live”? She interrogates this one question from 20 different angles in 20 chapters, a structure that feels fresh and exciting.

 

My new book: Endeavour: the Ship and the Attitude That Changed the World

My mother’s family, perhaps since the time of the ark, have lived on the North Yorkshire coast. This meant many a childhood holiday were spent around Scarborough, Whitby and Filey, and from a very early age I was introduced to histories about “Captain Cook”. I suppose it was just one of those latent stories implanted in childhood that shoots out a generation later.

I remember, even back then, being intrigued by the unusual vibrancy of the word “endeavour”. I knew too that Cook’s Endeavour was an particular type of ship: a Whitby collier. This shift in identity, from coal collier to exploration vessel, intrigued me and set me off researching a story that turned out far more complex, surprising and full of incident than I had imagined.

 

Endeavour by Peter Moore is published by Chatto & Windus