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7 powerful books that bring the UN's sustainable development goals to life

Can reading increase empathy and charitable thinking?

Satria SP / Unsplash

Reading, studies show, increases empathy and charitable thinking. Fiction has even been credited with helping readers improve their understanding of others and make changes in their own lives.


  • The UN has identified 17 interconnected goals for a sustainable future, from tackling poverty to climate action.
  • The aim is to achieve all of these goals by 2030.
  • Unesco's Cities of Literature have picked books to reflect each goal.

Knowing the power of reading, a network of cities around the globe has developed a recommended reading list inspired by the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the global benchmarks designed to help the world work toward a better future.

UNESCO's Cities of Literature – a group that includes Durban in South Africa, Manchester in the UK and Baghdad in Iraq – selected novels and true-life stories on key SDG themes, including poverty, hunger and sustainability.

Use their picks to widen your own perspectives and help fuel the world's progress toward achieving the UN's global goals. Here's a selection of their recommendations:


Lowry Going to Work - The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels

A painting by English artist LS Lowry (1887 - 1976) entitled 'Going To Work', and depicting factory workers in the snow outside the main entrance to the Park Works of the Mather and Platt engineering firm in Newton Heath, Manchester, 1943.

Laurence Stephen Lowry/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

1. The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels

Goal: No Poverty

Manchester recommends Friedrich Engels' classic book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, a call to arms sparked by the poverty Engels saw in the country in the 1840s. German-born Engels explores the human cost of the industrial revolution, depicting overcrowded housing, abject poverty, child labor and sexual exploitation. It is considered a pioneering work of social history.

2. Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Goal: Zero Hunger

Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness' book Independent People, recommended by Reykjavik, tells the story of a sheep farmer's heroic determination to eke out an independent living in the harsh landscape of rural Iceland. The brunt of his obsessive quest is felt most by his family as his own daughter becomes equally determined to become independent from her father. Laxness tells this battle of wills with humor in a book writer Annie Proulx calls "sardonic, clever and brilliant."

3. A Fist or a Heart by Kristín Eiríksdóttir

Goal: Good Health and Well-being

The novella A Fist or a Heart by Kristín Eiríksdóttir tells the story of Elín Jónsdóttir, an isolated woman in her seventies who makes props and prosthetics for theater and television programs. She meets a younger woman, also a loner, and they discover common ground in their difficult childhoods. The connection unearths painful memories as Elin's grasp on reality weakens. The book, selected by the city of Reykjavik, explores themes such as trauma and personal connection. It won the Icelandic Literary Prize and author Eiríksdóttir is considered one of the most original voices of her generation.

Trinity College Library, part of Cambridge University

Trinity College Library, part of Cambridge University.

RDImages/Epics/Getty Images

4. Taking Up Space by Chelsea Kwakye & Ore Ogunbiyi

Goal: Quality Education

Written by two recent graduates from the University of Cambridge, Taking Up Space tackles the struggles faced by women of color in predominantly white institutions. This non-fiction book functions as a manifesto for change and helps students advocate for themselves at university, covering everything from academics to activism, mental health and relationships. Called "groundbreaking" by the Guardian, this book was recommended by the city of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

5. Admissions by Mira Harrison

Goal: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Admissions is a collection of short stories that shares the experiences of eight women – doctors, nurses, cooks and cleaners – who have dedicated their lives to caring. The fictional tales, selected by the New Zealand city of Dunedin, recount the highs and lows of working in clinical medicine. The book demonstrates the many ways different women from all walks of life keep a struggling institution up and running while navigating their lives at home.

6. Scavengers by Darren Simpson

Goal: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Darren Simpson's young adult book Scavengers tells the story of two characters, Landfill and Old Babagoo, who live in a walled kingdom. Old Babagoo looks after Landfill on the condition that he follows his rules: never come looking outside and never rise above the wall. The book, selected by the UK's city of Nottingham, explores themes such as sustainability, prejudice and control in a work packed with twists and turns.

7. The Trespassers by Meg Mundell

Goal: Life Below Water

Meg Mundell's The Trespassers tells the story of a shipload of migrant workers leaving the UK and looking for a fresh start in Australia. When a crew member is murdered and people start falling gravely ill, it becomes unclear where the real danger lies. The book is inspired by the true story of the Ticonderoga, a 'fever ship' full of migrant workers that reached Melbourne in 1852 and led to the creation of Australia's first quarantine station. This book, selected by Australia's Melbourne, was called "clever," "gripping" and "powerful" by reviewers.

Reprinted with permission of the World Economic Forum. Read the original article.

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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

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Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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