A whole new chapter for the Penguin English Library

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?

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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.