How to ‘Read’ for AP English Literature

Story time, AP English Literature Magooshers. So I was sipping my coffee this morning, wondering what to write about next. A little Googling later I came across an intriguing article: NEWS FLASH: AP English Literature is killing your love of reading.


How to ‘Read’ for AP Literature and Composition -Magoosh

RIP Love of Reading. We hardly knew ye.


If you’re taking AP English Literature and Composition (as I did some years ago), I have no doubt that there are a few reading assignments that you consider blah at best. There are other assignments that you DON’T GET AT ALL. That being said, I hope you understand the difference between reading for class and reading for enjoyment/personal fulfillment. No? Mr. B to the rescue! Over the next few paragraphs, I’ll teach you how to ‘read’ for AP English Literature. If your AP Literature teacher has gone over some (or all) of this with you, consider this article good review.

There are also some jokes about raw chicken, Barbie’s boyfriend, and little boats.

With all that said, let’s get down to business.

Breaking Down Literature

To start us off, here’s an analogy. You’re flipping through the channels one day, and you find a cooking show where celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is teaching some hapless chefs how to break down a raw chicken. In less than a minute, Gordon turns said chicken into two breasts, two legs and two thighs. Every cut is precise, and no chicken bits are left over.

The main skill when ‘reading’ in AP English Literature is very similar to breaking down a chicken. But instead of fowl, we’re talking about your reading assignments. Here’s what this all means: every new piece of literature is a mission to break it down into its characters, plot, historical context, literary devices, etc. Maybe you’re not a fast reader (that’s okay), but to analyze literature, you need to know how to break it down.

How do you learn how to break down literature? Well, hopefully, you have a few skills from your last three years taking high school English. Also, here’s some oft said, but important advice: pay attention to what your teacher has to say. It’s likely that in the early weeks of AP English Literature, your teacher will be more hands on with his or her instruction. That means pointing out the different parts of the literature you read in class. If you pay attention, and ask questions when necessary, you should be able to fill up your ‘reading’ toolbox. With a little practice you’ll soon be able to break down everything from Things Fall Apart to Hamlet.

Now, the style of reading I’ve talked about in this section is what the author of the linked article was railing against. I’m not going to lie: it’s tedious, and sometimes takes a lot of work. Yet it’s the kind of reading you need to know how to do if you want to succeed on the AP English Literature Exam.

It’s also the kind of reading you need to know how to do if you ever want to become an author. Just sayin’.


how to read for ap english literature and composition -Magoosh

If you learn nothing else from this article, remember that everything you read for AP English Literature is raw chicken.


So now that we have the nuts and bolts of ‘reading’ out of the way, I want to discuss some specifics that should help make AP English Literature a much smoother experience.

The Story is Only Half of It

There are two stories to everything you read in AP English Literature. For example, let’s consider Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. Yes, the story is about the lives of American ex-pats in Paris during the 1920s. They drink a lot, go fishing, see some bullfights, and the narrator has an unfortunate resemblance to a Ken doll.

But the story is only half of it. To successfully answer questions on the AP Exam (especially free response questions), you need to understand the historical context of the novel. In the case of The Sun Also Rises, the story and characters reflect Hemingway’s time living in Paris with other members of the Lost Generation yada yada yada.

As your class explores new eras of literature, make sure to pack away a few historical details along with the literature itself. They will come in handy on the AP Exam. Trust me.

What Does It All Mean?

Interpretation is tricky business. To show you what I mean, here’s another example involving Hemingway. (Can you tell I like reading his stuff?) So when I took AP English Literature, we read Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants”. The basic plot involves two lovers in Spain waiting for a train that will take them to an abortion doctor. I remember the class having a LOOONNNGGG argument about what the ‘white elephants’ really were. Someone had the opinion that Hemingway chose the phrase because the unborn child was the ‘elephant in the room.’

A long time ago someone else had the same thought, and asked Hemingway what the title really meant. Hemingway’s reply (my paraphrase): “Have you ever been to Spain? That’s what the hills look like.”

Even though we know what Hemingway meant, there is still the all-important concept of Death of the Author. In short, we, as readers, have the authority to come to different conclusions about a piece of literature. Your teacher (and the College Board) knows this. That’s why when you’re completing class assignments, it’s okay to form unique opinions just as long as you can back them up with textual evidence and sound reasoning. In fact, this skill will help you the most when it comes to Section II of the AP Exam.

Besides “Hills Like White Elephants,” the only other ‘for sure’ interpretation of literature that I know of is that the stanzas in Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” are supposed to look like little boats. 🙂

How to ‘Read’ for AP Literature and Composition -Magoosh

Lil’ Tuggy is on the lookout for icebergs.

Final Thoughts

Well, Magooshers, I hope this article has armed you with a few valuable ‘reading’ skills. Besides helping you in AP Literature, they’ll come in handy if you ever take a literature class in college. Besides that, try not to use them when you read Andy Weir’s next novel. (I can’t wait!)

Till next time.

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  • Thomas Broderick

    Thomas spent four years teaching high school English, social studies, and ACT preparation in Middle Tennessee. Now living in Northern California, he is excited to share his knowledge and experience with Magoosh's readers. In his spare time Thomas enjoys writing short fiction and hiking in the Sonoma foothills.

By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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