A whole new chapter for the Penguin English Library

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Penguin English Library's books became design icons in the Sixties, but, asks Arifa Akbar, can the relaunched series be as big a success story?

When Penguin first launched a paperback series aimed at the growing army of Eng Lit students of the 1960s, the publishing house opened a magic door to thousands of readers.

The 150 titles in the Penguin English Library (PEL) series were ultra-cheap with vivid picture covers in a time when dust jackets were colourless and dull – and they sold in their millions. Now, more than a quarter of a century after the series came to an end, Penguin will relaunch its PEL series, with a set of 100 exquisitely designed – and, in contrast to the originals, markedly abstract – covers.

Simon Winder, publishing director at Penguin, decided to revive the series as he walked around Tate Britain one day last year, and saw people in their late teens sketching the works. "It made me think how wonderful it would be not to have read books such as Wuthering Heights yet, and how I thought I had a duty to make this prospect as attractive as possible."

The old covers, with their signature orange spines and old Letraset lettering, will resonate with most readers of a certain age. Such was the impact of these covers that they became synonymous with the canonical book they were illustrating. "For many thousands of readers, the girl on the stile in the red cloak is the open-sesame for Middlemarch, and for George Eliot", says Winder. Cover designs, he adds, can have a Pavlovian effect: "The spines alone are enough to reawaken our younger, better selves. And once the book is off the shelf, it is like holding a shallow cuboid of memories."

The new series designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, focuses on the beauty and elegance of the book. The contents are divested of all the added extras that usually distract from the text, such as lengthy introductions and footnotes. These books will simply feature a quirky author photograph – E M Forster looking romantic rather than characteristically prudish; Henry James staring pugnaciously ahead – and they will also contain the original title page with the full names of novels, some of which have since been shortened, such as Charles Dickens's Hard Times for These Times. An essay will appear at the end –D H Lawrence writing on Edgar Allan Poe; Harold Bloom on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Elizabeth Bowen on Persuasion.

Jim Stoddart, art designer at Penguin, who worked with Bickford-Smith, says book covers have acquired an added importance in our digital age. "In the last few years, there's been a growing competition. You can't put any old cover on a book anymore and expect it to work. In the 10 years that I've worked on covers, they've become really important. A good parallel is the record companies who work so hard on their art covers [to draw listeners away from downloads, and back to the physical object]," he says.

An Eng Lit classic should seem like an object of beauty to a reader, adds Winder. "You can download Middlemarch for nothing but why would you not want to own it, and keep it on your bookshelf, to go back to in years to come? What kind of a pact do you make with an author like Eliot or Defoe when you download a book?"

In fact, the endeavour to bring back Penguin English Library is in part, part of Penguin's fightback against the growing culture of literary downloads. There are, however, some rich ironies to this endeavour. In the 1960s, Penguin English Library fast became a popular series because it was so cheap and easily portable. It was criticised for its new technology – it exploited cheap colour printing for its dust jackets. The parallels between these criticism and those angled at e-books are marked.

The new titles, meanwhile begin with Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe – regarded as the literary canon's first novel – and end with novels published in 1914. Every book is £5.99, regardless of length.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen