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Literature For Sat Essay

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 a designated College-Board AP reading list per se, 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!

 

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-fivebooks 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-five inside and out, and beyond that, the more the better!

 

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.

 

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

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

 


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

 

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

 

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!

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

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

As you read the passage below, consider how Dana Gioia uses

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.

Adapted from Dana Gioia, “Why Literature Matters” ©2005 by The New York Times Company. Originally published April 10, 2005.

[A] strange thing has happened in the American arts during the past quarter century. While income rose to unforeseen levels, college attendance ballooned, and access to information increased enormously, the interest young Americans showed in the arts—and especially literature—actually diminished.

According to the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a population study designed and commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts (and executed by the US Bureau of the Census), arts participation by Americans has declined for eight of the nine major forms that are measured....The declines have been most severe among younger adults (ages 18–24). The most worrisome finding in the 2002 study, however, is the declining percentage of Americans, especially young adults, reading literature.

That individuals at a time of crucial intellectual and emotional development bypass the joys and challenges of literature is a troubling trend. If it were true that they substituted histories, biographies, or political works for literature, one might not worry. But book reading of any kind is falling as well.

That such a longstanding and fundamental cultural activity should slip so swiftly, especially among young adults, signifies deep transformations in contemporary life. To call attention to the trend, the Arts Endowment issued the reading portion of the Survey as a separate report, “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.”

The decline in reading has consequences that go beyond literature. The significance of reading has become a persistent theme in the business world. The February issue of Wired magazine, for example, sketches a new set of mental skills and habits proper to the 21st century, aptitudes decidedly literary in character: not “linear, logical, analytical talents,” author Daniel Pink states, but “the ability to create artistic and emotional beauty, to detect patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative.” When asked what kind of talents they like to see in management positions, business leaders consistently set imagination, creativity, and higher-order thinking at the top.

Ironically, the value of reading and the intellectual faculties that it inculcates appear most clearly as active and engaged literacy declines. There is now a growing awareness of the consequences of nonreading to the workplace. In 2001 the National Association of Manufacturers polled its members on skill deficiencies among employees. Among hourly workers, poor reading skills ranked second, and 38 percent of employers complained that local schools inadequately taught reading comprehension.

The decline of reading is also taking its toll in the civic sphere....A 2003 study of 15- to 26-year-olds’ civic knowledge by the National Conference of State Legislatures concluded, “Young people do not understand the ideals of citizenship… and their appreciation and support of American democracy is limited.”

It is probably no surprise that declining rates of literary reading coincide with declining levels of historical and political awareness among young people. One of the surprising findings of “Reading at Risk” was that literary readers are markedly more civically engaged than nonreaders, scoring two to four times more likely to perform charity work, visit a museum, or attend a sporting event. One reason for their higher social and cultural interactions may lie in the kind of civic and historical knowledge that comes with literary reading....

The evidence of literature’s importance to civic, personal, and economic health is too strong to ignore. The decline of literary reading foreshadows serious long-term social and economic problems, and it is time to bring literature and the other arts into discussions of public policy. Libraries, schools, and public agencies do noble work, but addressing the reading issue will require the leadership of politicians and the business community as well....

Reading is not a timeless, universal capability. Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit that depends on a great many educational, cultural, and economic factors. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent-minded. These are not the qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose.


Write an essay in which you explain how Dana Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience that the decline of reading in America will have a negative effect on society. In your essay, analyze how Gioia uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Gioia’s claims, but rather explain how Gioia builds an argument to persuade his audience.

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