AP Lit Reading List – 50 Best Books to Read

November 16, 2023

Ap lit reading list

The AP English Literature and Composition exam is made up of two sections: a multiple-choice section and a free-response section. Firstly, in the multiple-choice section, students answer questions pertaining to passages of fiction, drama, or poetry. Next, in the free-response section, students analyze poetry and prose and write an argumentative essay centered on a text of their own choice or chosen from a list of 40 literary works. The problem for students preparing for the test is that there is no official AP lit reading list. Oedipus, Lady Macbeth, Madame Bovary, Mrs. Dalloway, Scout Finch, Huck Finn—all of them, plus hundreds more plucked from the pages of the literary canon, are liable to pop up on the AP Lit exam. That’s daunting.

So how exactly does one prep for this test, especially given the fact that there’s no authoritative AP Lit reading list to consult? Also, if a student wants to write their argumentative essay on a book not named on the test, how are they supposed to know which books are AP exam-worthy?

Luckily, by taking a look at AP Lit exams of years past, we can get a sense of which works are likelier than others to make an appearance. And we can get a sense for what the College Board considers exam-worthy. In other words: relax—you don’t have to slog through the entire oeuvres of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin et al. Below, I’ve compiled a totally unofficial AP Lit reading list—the 50 books that appeared most frequently on the exam since 1971.

AP Lit Reading List  

1) Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison’s classic kicks off this unofficial AP Lit reading list. If my count is correct, it’s appeared on the AP Lit exam 28 times. And that sounds about right: I don’t think any scholar of literature—American or otherwise—would raise an eyebrow if you argued that Invisible Man is the most important American novel of the 20th century. Published in 1952, Invisible Man is a deep dive into the mind of its unnamed narrator, a Black man coming to terms with his identity in a white society that refuses to see him. I’ll always be thankful that my 11th-grade American Lit teacher assigned this book. It’s mesmerizing, violent, honest, devastating, cathartic…it wouldn’t be very difficult to keep the list of superlatives going.

2) Wuthering Heights ­– Emily Brontë

As you go about preparing for the AP Lit exam, it’s probably productive to keep the following question(s) in mind: why has such-and-such book come up on the test so often? In other words: what makes such-and-such book a classic? It’s not an easy question to answer. And I find that to be especially true here, thinking about Wuthering Heights. Is it considered a classic today because it’s an early example of psychological realism? Because of its depiction of abuse? Because it bucked the Victorian status quo?

The answer to all three of those questions is probably a decisive “yes, and…” What’s fascinating to me about Wuthering Heights is how emotionally turbulent the story is—and how emotionally turbulent it can be for the reader, too. Finally, Wuthering Heights has appeared on the AP Lit exam 23 times in total, making it the second most cited book in the test’s history.

3) Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

Great Expectations has appeared on the AP Lit exam 20 times. Whenever I hear the word “Dickensian,” I don’t think of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield; I think of Pip Pirrip, Miss Havisham and co. Great Expectations is the ultimate Dickensian drama: romance, social class, 19th century London, good versus evil—it’s all there. Additionally, two other Dickens epics are amongst the top 50 most cited books on the AP Lit exam: Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities have appeared 5 times each.

4) Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

Drawing inspiration from his experience working for a Belgian trading company in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is an exploration of the hypocrisies and horrors of imperialism. The novella has been on the AP Lit exam 18 times, and for good reason—the story asks important questions about morality, power, and racial subjugation, and the book itself can be critiqued for how it objectifies and exoticizes Africans.

5) Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre, the eldest Brontë sister’s classic, has made the AP Lit exam 18 times. It’s a first-person-narrated Bildungsroman in which the reader gets access to the rich inner world of the book’s eponymous narrator. We witness Jane’s moral and spiritual development, her transition from childhood to adulthood, and her budding romance with Mr. Rochester. Further, the psychological intimacy of the prose has made Jane Eyre an enduring classic.

AP Lit Reading List (Continued)

6) King Lear – William Shakespeare

Having appeared on the AP Lit exam 17 times, King Lear is the Shakespeare work most well represented on the test to date. The tragedy is set into motion when King Lear decides to split his kingdom among his three daughters and in the process disowns his youngest, Cordelia. Concurrently, the play deals with themes of betrayal, self-deception, justice, and nihilism.

King Lear is a great place to start if you want to make sure you’ve got at least one of your Shakespeare bases covered. But, let’s be real, it’d probably behoove AP Lit test takers to have read a few more of the Bard’s greatest hits. Othello has been on the test 10 times; The Tempest, 7 times; The Merchant of Venice, 6; Hamlet and Macbeth, 5 times each.

 7) Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Hey, it’s one of those Russian tomes I mentioned in the intro! Crime and Punishment has made the test 17 times, so if you’ve got to choose amongst the masterworks of the Russian heavy hitters, it’s not a bad bet. Published in 1866, Crime and Punishment is the inner monologue of a moral dilemma: Raskolnikov rationalizes his way to murder and then has to deal with the consequences—both legal and psychic.

8) Moby Dick – Herman Melville

I’ll admit it: I haven’t read Moby Dick. I’ve tried, but I’ve never been able to get beyond the first 50 or so pages. It’s dense and difficult and requires a serious investment of mental energy. But I’ve never doubted that it’s worth it, and I still like to think that someday I’ll clear my schedule for a week or two and finish the thing once and for all. As much as I cringe at the label, it is one of those Great American Novels. In other words: the story of American literature is much more than Moby Dick, but you can’t tell the story of American literature without Ishmael, Ahab, and that elusive whale.

So what can readers get out of it? It’s a meditation on America. But it’s also a meditation on narrative, on how stories can be told, on style, language, allusion, symbolism, and much more. Moby Dick has been on the AP Lit exam a total of 15 times.

9) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce

The Joyce work that in some ways is the prelude to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the story of Joyce’s fictional alter ego Stephen Dedalus and his struggle against prevailing Catholic and Irish conventions. It’s appeared on the AP Lit exam 14 times. Consequently, this should make it a fixture of any AP Lit reading list. Further, it’s a great example of a Künstlerroman, a story about an artist’s maturation.

10) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Twain’s 1884 classic has appeared on the AP Lit exam 14 times and is frequently cited as one of those aforementioned Great American Novels. Why? For starters, it was one of the first examples of American Literature to be written in a slangy, regional vernacular. It’s also full of humor, and it often satirizes the antebellum South and American racism in general. But that’s not to say that Huckleberry Finn doesn’t come without baggage. Even though Huck Finn and the attitude of the book can be read as anti-racist, Twain’s use of racial stereotypes and epithets is worth questioning and criticizing.

AP Lit Reading List (Continued)

11) Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Catch-22, coming in at 14 appearances on the AP Lit exam, might be my personal favorite on this entire list. It’s known as a brutal satire of the American WWII war effort. And it certainly is a satire—a masterful satire. The caricature, the wordplay, the paradox—at a certain point in reading Catch-22, you just have to sit back and admire Heller’s virtuosity. But the book isn’t reducible to Heller’s chops. In fact, his command of humor makes his depiction of war—the horrors of war—that much more devastating.

12) Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic and influential love story published in 1937. Of course, it’s much more than a love story—it’s an exploration of gender roles, the enduring effects of racism, and, above all, it’s the story of protagonist Janie Crawford’s search for her own voice and identity. In terms of how to see the novel within the context of American literature, it’s often cited as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance and African-American Literature. And while it is important to see it as a part of those lineages, Their Eyes Were Watching God is just as much a candidate for being the Great American Novel as is Moby Dick or Huck Finn. Lastly, it’s appeared on the AP Lit exam 13 times.

AP Lit Reading List (Continued)

13) The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne (13 appearances)

14) The Awakening – Kate Chopin (12)

15) The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (12)

16) Billy Budd – Herman Melville (11)

17) Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko (11)

18) Light in August – William Faulkner (11)

19) Antigone – Sophocles (10)

20) As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner (10)

AP Lit Reading List (Continued)

21) Beloved – Toni Morrison (10)

22) The Color Purple – Alice Walker (10)

23) The Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams (10)

24) Native Son – Richard Wright (10)

25) Othello – William Shakespeare (10)

26) A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams (10)

27) Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller (9)

28) A Passage to India – E.M. Forster (9)

29) A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (9)

30) All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy (8)

AP Lit Reading List (Continued)

31) Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (8)

32) Bless Me, Ultima – Rudolfo Anaya (8)

33) Candide – Voltaire (8)

34) The Crucible – Arthur Miller (8)

35) The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck (8)

36) Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy (8)

37) The Jungle – Upton Sinclair (8)

38) Portrait of a Lady – Henry James (8)

39) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – Tom Stoppard (8)

40) Sula – Toni Morrison (8)

AP Lit Reading List (Continued)

41) Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett (8)

42) Pride and Prejudice ­– Jane Austen (7)

43) Madame Bovary ­ Gustave Flaubert (7)

44) The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway (7)

45) Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe (7)

46) Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton (6)

47) Frankenstein ­– Mary Shelley (5)

48) The Cherry Orchard – Anton Chekhov (5)

49) Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin (5)

50) Wise Blood ­– Flannery O’Connor (5)

AP Reading List – Additional Resources

In conclusion, if you are looking for additional high school literature resources, we invite you to visit the High School Success section of the College Transitions blog. Additionally, some relevant blogs that you may find interesting include: