Recommended Reading List for GP and SAT

Exploring the Western Canon

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.
– Francis Bacon

These lists of books and movies aim to improve Pre-University students’ cultural literacy about the Western civilisation, or in particular, the English-speaking world. The lists also help them acquire broader, more insightful perspectives for critical writing classes. Compiled based on personal engagement and scholarly assessments, the reading/watching lists contains essential selections that are meaningful for the preparations of standardised tests and undergraduate education. The list target at Pre-University students who are not expected to have specialised knowledge about various academic disciplines or even speak English as their first language. These accessible titles remain at the introductory level and reflect common adolescent maturity. The lists are by no means exclusive as there are still many more dimensions in the Western canon, and reading (or writing) is ultimately a lifelong quest.

The lists are subject to revisions. Feel free to email your recommendations to me as well. Thanks!


Richard Adams, Watership Down (1972)

Key Words:  Fantasy, Adventure, Freedom and Tyranny, Allegory

Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince (1943)

Key Words: Philosophical Fable, Adventure, , Speculative Fiction, Cultural Literacy

Luisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868)

Key Words: American Literature, Coming-of-Age Story, Sisterhood, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice (1797)

Key Words: Literature, Romance, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Jane Austin, Sense and Sensibility (1797)

Key Words: Literature, Romance, Cultural Literacy

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847)

Key Words: Literature, Liberty, Individuality, Courage, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (1847)

Key Words: Literature, Romance, Cultural Literacy

Dan Brown, Angels and Demons (2000)

Key Words: Christianity, Adventure, Cultural Literacy

Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Key Words: Space Adventure, Science and Technologies, Scientific Ethics

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

Key Words: Literature, French Revolution, Historical Drama, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861)

Key Words: Literature, Cultural Literacy, Crime, Gothic Novel, SAT

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1838)

Key Words: Literature, Symbolism, Social Inequality, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866)

Key Words: Punishment, Utilitarianism, Rationalism, Moral Nihilism

Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (1845)

Key Words: Historical Drama, Adventure, Popular Fiction, Cultural Literacy

Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

Key Words: Capitalism, Materialism, American Dream, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Jostein Gaader, Sophie’s World (1991)

Key Words: Philosophy, History of Western Thoughts

Arthur Golden, Memoirs of A Geisha (1997)

Key Words: Orientalism, Historical Novel

William Golding, Lord of Flies (1954)

Key Words: Human Nature and Social Organisation, Morality, SAT

Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)

Key Words: Black Comedy, Absurdism, Satire, War, Historical Drama

Ernest Hemingway, Farewell to Arms (1929)

Key Words: World War I, SAT

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)

Key Words: Gender, Minimalist Writing, Anti-Semitism, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862)

Key Words: Literature, Cultural Literacy

Aldous Huxley, Brave New Word (1932)

Key Words: Dystopia, Censorship, Scientific Fiction

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

Key Words: Modernist Literature, Stream-of-Consciousness Technique, SAT

Jack Kerousac, On the Road (1957)

Key Words: American Literature, Counterculture Generation, SAT

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)

Key Words: Philosophical Literature, Existence, Romance

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Key Words: Coming-of-age story, Southern Gothic, SAT

Gaston Leroux, Phantom of the Opera (1909)

Key Words: Romance, Gothic Novel, Horror, Cultural Literacy

Jack London, The Call of the Wild (1903)

Key Words: Adventure, SAT

Lois Lowry, The Giver (1993)

Key Words: Utopia, Individuality, Freedom, Social Organisation

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

Key Words: Fatalism, Industrialisation, Magic Realism, Solitude

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (1990)

Key Words: Vietnam War, Political Debate

George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

Key Words: Communism, Social Equality, Political Fable, Elitism, SAT

George Orwell, 1984 (1948)

Key Words: Dystopia, Censorship, Dictatorship, Human Rights, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (1927)

Key Words: Literature, Impressionism

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Key Words: Teenage Rebellion, SAT

William Shakespeare, Hamlet (~1599), Macbeth (~1606), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (~1590), Romeo and Juliet (~1591), The Merchant of Venice (~1596)

Key Words: Cultural Literacy

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

Key Words: Industrialisation, Scientific Ethics, SAT

John Steinbeck, The Pearl (1947)

Key Words: Greed, Human Nature

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (1937)

Key Words: Loneliness, Dreams, Human Interactions

Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)

Key Words: Vampire Novel, Thriller, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

Key Words: Slavery, Freedom, Cultural Literacy, SAT

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of Rings Trilogy (1955)

Key Words: Fantasy, Response to Industrialisation, Humanity, Adventure, Cultural Literacy

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

Key Words: Literature, Liberty, Social Stereotype

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)

Key Words: Literature, Historical Drama, Realism, Cultural Literacy

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

Key Words: American Literature, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days (1873)

Key Words: Adventure, Industrialisation, Cultural Literacy

Alice Walker, The Colour Purple (1982)

Key Words: Feminism, Colonialism, Religion, Freedom, SAT/GRE

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (2007)

Key Words: World War II, Humanity, Education, Holocaust


Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983)

Key Words: Theory of Nationalism, Modern and Ancient Nationalism

Karen Blixen, Out of Africa (1937)

Key Words: Biography, Trials

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)

Key Words: Industrialisation, Environmental Conservation, Pollution

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859)

Key Words: Evolution, Biology, Atheism

Umberto Eco, History of Beauty (2010)

Key Words: Aesthetics, Arts Historynon

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (2000)

Key Words: Individualism, Transcendentalism, American Renaissance, SAT

Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (2000)

Key Words: Mathematics, Philosophy of Science, Physics, Popular Science

T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917-1932 (1932)

Key Words: Literary Criticism

Annie Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (1947)

Key Words: Holocaust, Humanity, SAT

Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791)

Key Words: Autobiography, SAT

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900)

Key Words: Psychology, Psychoanalysis, Subconscious Mind, Ego

Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (1962)

Key Words: Ethics of Capitalism, Economics

Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992)

Key Words: Globalisation, Political Philosophy

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (2014)

Key Words: American Culture, Gender, Feminism, Sexual Orientation, SAT

Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (1999)

Key Words: Moral Theories, History of Ethics

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004)

Key Words: Shakespeare Biography, Cultural Literacy 

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (2004)

Key Words: Languages and their impact, Aesthetics, Cultural Theories

Alex Haley and Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)

Key Words: Human Rights, Black Pride, SAT

G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology (1940)

Key Words: Mathematics, Aesthetics of Mathematics, Mindset of Mathematicians

John Hersey, Hiroshima (1946)

Key Words: Atomic Bomb, Survivors of Hiroshima. New Journalism

Homer, The Odyssey (~8th Century BC)

Key Words: Greek Mythology, Cultural Literacy

Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Greeks Created the Digital Revolution (2014)

Key Words: Internet, Entrepreneurship, Biography

A.J. Liebling, The Sweet Science (2004)

Key Words: Sports, History of American Boxing 

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and The Murderer (1990)

Key Words: Ethics of Journalism 

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)

Key Words: Media Theory

John McMillan, Reinventing the Bazaar: A Nature History of Markets (2002)

Key Words: Economics, History of Economics, Globalisation

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

Key Words: Political Philosophy, Freedom, Tyranny of Majority, Utilitarianism

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (1968)

Key Words: Physics, Philosophy of Science, Cultural Literacy

Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983)

Key Words: Mathematics, History of World War II, Machine Learning, Homosexuality

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (1996)

Key Words: Modernisation, Westernisation, Political Science

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experiences (1902)

Key Words: Religion, Theology, Philosophy of Religion, Psychology

Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait (1963)

Key Words: Racial Segregation in America, SAT

Plato, edited by C. D. C. Reeve, A Plato Reader: Eight Essential Dialogues (2012)

Key Words: Philosophy, Socratic Method, Platonic Dialogue, Origin of Western Thoughts

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971)

Key Words: Political Philosophy, Income Distribution, Social Contract Theory

Betrand Russell, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy (1919)

Key Words: Metaphysics, Mathematical Logic

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (1912)

Key Words: Philosophy, Important Western Thoughts

Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1978)

Key Words: Cultural Theories, History, SAT

Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975)

Key Words: Utilitarianism, Animal Rights 

Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi, How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (2010)

Key Words: Social Stereotype

William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style (1920)

Key Words: Writing, Rhetoric

Henry David Thereau, Walden (1854)

Key Words: Self-sufficiency, Contemplation, Economics, SAT

Leo Tolstoy, What is Art (1897)

Key Words: Theories of art, Sincerity of the artist, Clarity, Individuality

Stephen Trzaskoma, R. Scott Stephen Brunet, Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary Sources in Translation (2004)

Key Words: Greek Mythology, Cultural Literacy

Eugene Wigner, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences (1960)

Key Words: Mathematics, Philosophy of Science

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1850)

Key Words: Poetry, Realism, Transcendentalism, Humanism, Cultural Literacy

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)

Key Words: Feminism, Women in Fiction

Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (1966)

Key Words: Mnemonic Techniques, History of Science and Literature


A Separation (2011)

Key Words: Religion, Morality, Prejudice

Avatar (2009)

Key Words: Human Expansionism, Naturalism, Environmental Protection

Boyhood (2014)

Key Words: Authenticity, Growth, Coming-Out-Of-Age

Birdman (2014)

Key Words: Egoism, Commercialisation of the Arts

Citizen Kane (1941)

Key Words: Politics, Democracy, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Chicago (2002)

Key Words: Materialism, Legal Blind Spot, Cultural Literacy

Dead Poets Society (1989)

Key Words: Education, Freedom of Thoughts, Useless Freedom

Exit from the Gift Shop (2010)

Key Words: Street Art, Mockumentary, Criticisms of Art

Ex Machina (2015)

Key Words: Artificial Intelligence, Scientific Ethics, Machine Rights

Forrest Gump (1994)

Key Words: Freedom, Courage, American Dream, Cultural Literacy, SAT

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Key Words: Female Liberation, Human Rights, Slavery

Her (2012)

Key Words: Artificial Intelligence, Scientific Ethics, Intimacy Redefined, Home

Les Choristes (2004)

Key Words: Education, Music

Life of Pi (2012)

Key Words: Idealism, Adversity

Lincoln (2012)

Key Words: Historical Drama, Liberty, Equality, Cultural Literacy, SAT

One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Key Words: Mental Health, Psychology, Freedom, Cultural Literacy

Schindler’s List (1993)

Key Words: Holocaust, Human Nature

Spotlight (2015)

Key Words: Journalism, New Media, Ethics

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Key Words: Holocaust, Morality, Cultural Literacy

The Blind Side (2009)

Key Words: Equality, Human Rights, Feminism, American Dream

The Dark Knight (2008)

Key Words: Justice and Evil, Moral Authority

The Godfather Trilogy

Key Words: Justice, Family, Historical Drama, Cultural Literacy, SAT

The Iron Lady (2011)

Key Words: Woman in Politics, Feminism

The King’s Speech (2010)

Key Words: Aristocracy, British Monarchy, World War II, Cultural Literacy

The Matrix (1999)

Key Words: Epistemology, Reality, External World Scepticism

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Key Words: Historical Drama, Cultural Literacy

Thirteen Days (2000)

Key Words: Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis, Political Drama

The Truman Show (1998)

Key Words: Mass Media, Privacy, Social Relationship

Tree of Life (2011)

Key Words: Philosophical Film, Existentialism, Religion

Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Key Words: Democracy, Justice, Western Court System, Cultural Literacy

Twelve Years a Slave (2013)

Key Words: Slavery, Freedom, Cultural Literacy, SAT

V for Vendetta (2005)

Key Words: Censorship, Dystopia, the Arts, Medical Ethics

Zootopia (2016)

Key Words: Social Stereotypes

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