Novels may be made up, but the emotions they evoke are real. These feelings grow out of our connection to the novel’s characters and the relationships between a protagonist and others in the context of the broader society. As we follow the ups and downs of a carefully crafted story, we build connections within the social and emotional regions of the brain. The result, according to recent research, is a better understanding of other human beings and a deeper empathy for others, leading to improved social skills. Historians have also claimed that great works of fiction have lent support to the concept of human rights. (For more on the psychology of fiction, see “In the Minds of Others,” by Keith Oatley, Scientific American Mind, November/December 2011.)

The image below depicts 10 novels that hold significant sway over the human mind. Although some of these books are set in periods and places different from our own, all come vividly alive for the modern reader. Click on the spine of a book to learn more about the story told inside its cover.

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Photo credit: Edwina Hay