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AP Literature Reading List: 127 Great Books for Your Prep

Posted by Ellen McCammon | May 1, 2018 8:00:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)

 

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A lot of students wonder if there’s a specific AP English reading list of books they should be reading to succeed on the AP Literature and Composition exam. While there’s not an official College-Board AP reading list, there are books that will be more useful for you to read than others as you prepare for the exam. In this article, I’ll break down why you need to read books to prepare, how many you should plan on reading, and what you should read—including poetry.

 

Why Do You Need to Read Books for the AP Literature Test?

This might seem like kind of an obvious question—you need to read books because it’s a literature exam! But actually, there are three specific reasons why you need to read novels, poems, and plays in preparation for the AP Lit Test.

 

To Increase Your Familiarity With Different Eras and Genres of Literature

Reading a diverse array of novels, poetry and plays from different eras and genres will help you be familiar with the language that appears in the various passages on the AP Lit exam’s multiple choice and essay sections. If you read primarily modern works, for example, you may stumble through analyzing a Shakespeare sonnet. So, having a basic familiarity level with the language of a broad variety of literary works will help keep you from floundering in confusion on test day because you’re seeing a work unlike anything you’ve ever read.

 

To Improve Your Close-Reading Skills

You’ll also want to read to improve your close-reading and rhetorical analysis skills. When you do read, really engage with the text: think about what the author’s doing to construct the novel/poem/play/etc., what literary techniques and motifs are being deployed, and what major themes are at play. You don’t necessarily need to drill down to the same degree on every text, but you should always be thinking, “Why did the author write this piece this way?”

 

For the Student Choice Free-Response Question

Perhaps the most critical piece in reading to prepare for the AP Lit test, however, is for the student choice free-response question. For the third question on the second exam section, you’ll be asked to examine how a specific theme works in one novel or play that you choose. The College Board does provide an example list of works, but you can choose any work you like just so long as it has adequate “literary merit.” However, you need to be closely familiar with more than one work so that you can be prepared for whatever theme the College Board throws at you!

 

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Note: Not an effective reading method.

 

How Many Books Do You Need to Read for the AP Exam?

That depends. In terms of reading to increase your familiarity with literature from different eras and genres and to improve your close-reading skills, the more books you have time to read, the better. You’ll want to read them all with an eye for comprehension and basic analysis, but you don’t necessarily need to focus equally on every book you read.

For the purposes of the student choice question, however, you’ll want to read books more closely, so that you could write a detailed, convincing analytical essay about any of their themes. So you should know the plot, characters, themes, and major literary devices or motifs used inside and out. Since you won’t know what theme you’ll be asked to write about in advance, you’ll need to be prepared to write a student choice question on more than just one book.

Of the books you read for prep both in and out of class, choose four to five books that are thematically diverse to learn especially well in preparation for the exam. You may want to read these more than once, and you certainly want to take detailed notes on everything that’s going on in those books to help you remember key points and themes. Discussing them with a friend or mentor who has also read the book will help you generate ideas on what’s most interesting or intriguing about the work and how its themes operate in the text.

You may be doing some of these activities anyways for books you are assigned to read for class, and those books might be solid choices if you want to be as efficient as possible. Books you write essays about for school are also great choices to include in your four to five book stable since you will be becoming super-familiar with them for the writing you do in class anyways.

In answer to the question, then, of how many books you need to read for the AP Lit exam: you need to know four to five inside and out, and beyond that, the more the better!

 

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Know the books. Love the books.

 

What Books Do You Need to Read for the AP Exam?

The most important thing for the student choice free-response question is that the work you select needs to have “literary merit.” What does this mean? In the context of the College Board, this means you should stick with works of literary fiction. So in general, avoid mysteries, fantasies, romance novels, and so on.

If you’re looking for ideas, authors and works that have won prestigious prizes like the Pulitzer, Man Booker, the National Book Award, and so on are good choices. Anything you read specifically for your AP literature class is a good choice, too. If you aren’t sure if a particular work has the kind of literary merit the College Board is looking for, ask your AP teacher.

When creating your own AP Literature reading list for the student choice free-response, try to pick works that are diverse in author, setting, genre, and theme. This will maximize your ability to comprehensively answer a student choice question about pretty much anything with one of the works you’ve focused on.

So, I might, for example, choose:

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare, play, 1605

    • Major themes and devices: magic, dreams, transformation, foolishness, man vs. woman, play-within-a-play

  • Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte, novel, 1847

    • Major themes and devices: destructive love, exile, social and economic class, suffering and passion, vengeance and violence, unreliable narrator, frame narrative, family dysfunction, intergenerational narratives.

  • The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton, novel, 1920

    • Major themes and devices: Tradition and duty, personal freedom, hypocrisy, irony, social class, family, “maintaining appearances”, honor

  • Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys, novel, 1966

    • Major themes and devices: slavery, race, magic, madness, wildness, civilization vs. chaos, imperialism, gender

As you can see, while there is some thematic overlap in my chosen works, they also cover a broad swathe of themes. They are also all very different in style (although you’ll just have to take my word on that one unless you go look at all of them yourself), and they span a range of time periods and genres as well.

However, while there’s not necessarily a specific, mandated AP Literature reading list, there are books that come up again and again on the suggestion lists for student choice free-response questions. When a book comes up over and over again on exams, this suggests both that it’s thematically rich, so you can use it to answer lots of different kinds of questions, and that the College Board sees a lot of value in the work.

To that end, I’ve assembled a list, separated by time period, of all the books that have appeared on the suggested works list for student choice free-response questions at least twice since 2003.  While you certainly shouldn’t be aiming to read all of these books (there’s way too many for that!), these are all solid choices for the student choice essay.  Other books by authors from this list are also going to be strong choices. It’s likely that some of your class reading will overlap with this list, too.

I’ve divided up the works into chunks by time period. In addition to title, each entry includes the author, whether the work is a novel, play, or something else, and when it was first published or performed. Works are alphabetical by author.

 

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Warning: Not all works pictured included in AP Literature reading list below.

 

Ancient Works

Title
Author
Genre
Date
Medea
Euripides
play
431 BC
The Odyssey
Homer
epic poem
(no date)
Antigone
Sophocles
play
441 BC
Oedipus Rex
Sophocles
play
429 BC



1500-1799

Title
Author
Genre
Date
Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes
novel
1605
Tom Jones
Henry Fielding
novel
1749
As You Like It
Shakespeare
play
1623
Julius Caesar
Shakespeare
play
1599
King Lear
Shakespeare
play
1606
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare
play
1605
The Merchant of Venice
Shakespeare
play
1605
Othello
Shakespeare
play
1604
The Tempest
Shakespeare
play
1611
Candide
Voltaire
novel
1759



1800-1899

Title
Author
Genre
Date
Emma
Jane Austen
novel
1815
Mansfield Park
Jane Austen
novel
1814
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen
novel
1813
Jane Eyre
Charlotte Bronte
novel
1847
Wuthering Heights
Emily Bronte
novel
1847
The Awakening
Kate Chopin
novel
1899
The Red Badge of Courage
Stephen Crane
novel
1895
Bleak House
Charles Dickens
novel
1853
David Copperfield
Charles Dickens
novel
1850
Great Expectations
Charles Dickens
novel
1861
Oliver Twist
Charles Dickens
novel
1837
A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens
novel
1859
Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
novel
1866
Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert
novel
1856
Jude the Obscure
Thomas Hardy
novel
1895
The Mayor of Casterbridge
Thomas Hardy
novel
1886
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
novel
1891
The Scarlet Letter
Nathaniel Hawthorne
novel
1850
A Doll’s House
Henrik Ibsen
play
1879  
The American
Henry James
novel
1877
The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James
novel
1881
Moby-Dick
Herman Melville
novel
1851
Frankenstein
Mary Shelley
novel
1818
Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy
novel
1877
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain
novel
1885



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The Queen of AP Literature surveys her kingdom.

 

1900-1939

Title
Author
Genre
Date
My Ántonia
Willa Cather
novel
1918
The Cherry Orchard
Anton Chekhov
play
1904
Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad
novel
1902
Sister Carrie
Theodore Dreiser
novel
1900
Murder in the Cathedral
T.S. Eliot
play
1935
Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner
novel
1936
As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner
novel
1930
Light in August
William Faulkner
novel
1932
The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner
novel
1929
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
novel
1925
A Passage to India
E.M. Forster
novel
1924
The Little Foxes
Lillian Hellman
play
1939
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston
novel
1937
Brave New World
Aldous Huxley
novel
1931
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
James Joyce
novel
1916
Billy Budd
Herman Melville
novel
1924
Major Barbara
George Bernard Shaw
play
1905
The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck
novel
1939
The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton
novel
1920
Ethan Frome
Edith Wharton
novel
1911
The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton
novel
1905
Mrs. Dalloway
Virginia Woolf
novel
1925



1940-1969

Title
Author
Genre
Date
Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe
novel
1958
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee
play
1962
Another Country
James Baldwin
novel
1962
Waiting for Godot
Samuel Beckett
play
1953
The Plague
Albert Camus
novel
1947
Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison
novel
1952
Lord of the Flies
William Golding
novel
1954
A Raisin in the Sun
Lorraine Hansberry
play
1959
Catch-22
Joseph Heller
novel
1961
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’ s Nest
Ken Kesey
novel
1962 
A Separate Peace
John Knowles
novel
1959
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee
novel
1960
The Crucible
Arthur Miller
play
1953
Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller
play
1949
House Made of Dawn
N. Scott Momaday
novel
1968
Wise Blood
Flannery O’Connor
novel
1952
1984
George Orwell
novel
1949
Cry, the Beloved Country
Alan Paton
novel
1948
All the King’s Men
Robert Penn Warren
novel
1946
The Chosen
Chaim Potok
novel
1967
Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys
novel
1966
The Catcher in the Rye
JD Salinger
novel
1951
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Tom Stoppard
play
1966
Cat’s Cradle
Kurt Vonnegut
novel
1963 
The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams
play
1945
A Streetcar Named Desire
Tennessee Williams
play
1947
Black Boy
Richard Wright
memoir
1945
Native Son
Richard Wright
novel
1940

 


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Don't get trapped in a literature vortex!

 

1970-1989

Title
Author
Genre
Date
Bless Me, Ultima
Rudolfo Anaya
novel
1972
The House on Mango Street
Sandra Cisneros
novel
1984
“Master Harold” . . . and the boys
Athol Fugard
play
1982
M. Butterfly
David Henry Hwang
play
1988
A Prayer for Owen Meany
John Irving
novel
1989
The Woman Warrior
Maxine Hong Kingston
memoir
1976
Obasan
Joy Kogawa
novel
1981
Beloved
Toni Morrison
novel
1987 
The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison
novel
1970
Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison
novel
1977 
Sula
Toni Morrison
novel
1973
Jasmine
Bharati Mukherjee
novel
1989
The Women of Brewster Place
Gloria Naylor
novel
1982
Going After Cacciato
Tim O’Brien
novel
1978
Equus
Peter Shaffer
play
1973
Ceremony
Leslie Marmon Silko
novel
1977
Sophie’s Choice
William Styron
novel
1979
The Color Purple
Alice Walker
novel
1982
Fences
August Wilson
play
1983
The Piano Lesson
August Wilson
play
1987



1990-Present 

Title
Author
Genre
Date
Reservation Blues
Sherman Alexie
novel
1995
The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood
novel
2000
Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
novel
2003
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
Kim Edwards
novel
2005
Cold Mountain
Charles Frazier
novel
1997
Snow Falling on Cedars
David Guterson
novel
1994
The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini
novel
2003
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Khaled Hosseini
novel
2007
Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro
novel
2005
The Poisonwood Bible
Barbara Kingsolver
novel
1998
The Namesake
Jumpa Lahiri
novel
2004
All the Pretty Horses
Cormac McCarthy
novel
1992
Atonement
Ian McEwan
novel
2001
Native Speaker
Chang Rae-Lee
novel
1995
The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy
novel
1997
A Thousand Acres
Jane Smiley
novel
1991
The Bonesetter’s Daughter
Amy Tan
novel
2001
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
David Wroblewski
novel
2008

 

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Don't stay in one reading position for too long, or you'll end up like this guy.

 

An Addendum on Poetry

You probably won’t be writing about poetry on your student choice essay—most just aren’t meaty enough in terms of action and character to merit a full-length essay on the themes when you don’t actually have the poem in front of you (a major exception being The Odyssey). That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be reading poetry, though! You should be reading a wide variety of poets from different eras to get comfortable with all the varieties of poetic language. This will make the poetry analysis essay and the multiple-choice questions about poetry much easier!

See this list of poets compiled from the list given on page 14 of the AP Course and Exam Description for AP Lit, separated out by time period. For those poets who were working during more than one of the time periods sketched out below, I tried to place them in the era in which they were more active.

I’ve placed an asterisk next to the most notable and important poets in the list; you should aim to read one or two poems by each of the starred poets to get familiar with a broad range of poetic styles and eras.


14th-17th Centuries

  1. Anne Bradstreet
  2. Geoffrey Chaucer
  3. John Donne
  4. George Herbert
  5. Ben Jonson
  6. Andrew Marvell
  7. John Milton
  8. William Shakespeare*


18th-19th Centuries

  1. William Blake*
  2. Robert Browning
  3. Samuel Taylor Coleridge*
  4. Emily Dickinson*
  5. Paul Laurence Dunbar
  6. George Gordon, Lord Byron
  7. Gerard Manley Hopkins
  8. John Keats*
  9. Edgar Allan Poe*
  10. Alexander Pope*
  11. Percy Bysshe Shelley*
  12. Alfred, Lord Tennyson*
  13. Walt Whitman*
  14. William Wordsworth*

 

Early-Mid 20th Century

  1. W. H. Auden
  2. Elizabeth Bishop
  3. H. D. (Hilda Doolittle)
  4. T. S. Eliot*
  5. Robert Frost*
  6. Langston Hughes*
  7. Philip Larkin
  8. Robert Lowell
  9. Marianne Moore
  10. Sylvia Plath*
  11. Anne Sexton*
  12. Wallace Stevens
  13. William Carlos Williams
  14. William Butler Yeats*

 

Late 20th Century-Present

  1. Edward Kamau Brathwaite
  2. Gwendolyn Brooks
  3. Lorna Dee Cervantes
  4. Lucille Clifton
  5. Billy Collins
  6. Rita Dove
  7. Joy Harjo
  8. Seamus Heaney
  9. Garrett Hongo
  10. Adrienne Rich
  11. Leslie Marmon Silko
  12. Cathy Song
  13. Derek Walcott
  14. Richard Wilbur

 

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You might rather burn books than read them after the exam, but please refrain.

 

Key Takeaways

Why do you need to read books to prepare for AP Lit? For three reasons:

  1. To become familiar with a variety of literary eras and genres
  2. To work on your close-reading skills
  3. To become closely familiar with four-five works for the purposes of the student choice free-response essay analyzing a theme in a work of your choice.

How many books do you need to read? Well, you definitely need to get very familiar with four-five for essay-writing purposes, and beyond that, the more the better!

Which books should you read? Check out the AP English Literature reading list in this article to see works that have appeared on two or more “suggested works” lists on free-response prompts since 2003.

And don’t forget to read some poetry too! See some College Board recommended poets listed in this article.

 

What's Next?

See my expert guide to the AP Literature test for more exam tips!

The multiple-choice section of the AP Literature exam is a key part of your score. Learn everything you need to know about it in our complete guide to AP Lit multiple-choice questions.

Taking other APs? Check out our expert guides to the AP Chemistry exam, AP US History, AP World History, AP Psychology, and AP Biology

 

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Ellen McCammon
About the Author

Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.



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