BreakingModern — I’m going to be honest here — nowadays, most of my reading is done online. I subscribe to The Washington Post and The New York Times, skim the trending topics on Facebook and Twitter and indulge in some online comics and graphic novels. Most of the time, if I’m online, I’m reading.
But for fiction, I still always return to the physical book — sometimes on an e-reader, but mostly real paper and turn-y pages. However, sometimes I wonder — is my next move to start reading fiction online too?
I decided to investigate.
Can We Read Online Fiction Like Regular Old Book-based Fiction?
For one thing, most people don’t read Internet material in the same way they read words on paper — the brain literally consumes the information differently. When reading online, where infographics, videos and links to other articles compete for our attention, we tend to skim and search for keywords. With paper books, reading tends to be more linear — as in, I read the first word, then the next, then the next and so on until I finish the book.
To be clear, this change is not a sign of the downfall of man or the much-touted mental devolution of today’s youth. It’s simply an example of the brain’s elastic ability to adapt to new ways of consuming information. When presented with the surfeit of written words on the Internet, our brains figured out how to consume as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time. Yay, human brains! (Er, you know what I mean.)
However, this adaptation may make it difficult to consume, say, War and Peace via computer screen. Long, complex tales with beautiful intricate sentences tend to be better absorbed via a physical book (e-reader or otherwise), where reading comprehension is stronger and you’re more likely to concentrate fully on the story.
That’s not to say some fiction can’t work for online reading. I still remember hungrily devouring a Mary-Sue-style Pirates of the Caribbean fan fiction that I found online in the early 2000s. (What? I was 12.) I’m willing to bet that, just like online articles, online fiction works best when it’s punchy, colorful, clever and uncomplicated. Think more Hemingway than Faulkner, more Buzzfeed than The New York Times.
Can I Find This Snappy, High Quality Fiction Online?
This is the tricky part. While publishers sort through dull manuscripts and poorly written short stories for you, pretty much anyone with an Internet connection can publish their latest novel online.
Your best bet is to go with a website that touts “handpicked” or “selected” stories, like Inkitt. Otherwise, unless you have a specific title in mind, you’ll be wading through a vast sea of potential readables. (The sheer volume of titles on many fiction-reading sites caused me to back … away … slowly.)
Browsing through Inkitt’s staff picks, I found most titles were intriguing and, believe it or not, well-written (and mercifully free of garishly cheesy cover art.) As predicted, I lingered the longest in witty, action packed novels consisting mainly of skimmable short sentences, such as Rise: Future Worlds by Brian Guthrie. I tended to drift more quickly while reading the options like the beautifully written but lengthy Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.
However, for me at least, my Internet reading style kicks in even while reading the snappiest of dialogues. No matter how riveting the story, I eventually drift off to the immediate gratification of YouTube or Tumblr. Long form still poses a challenge on the computer screen, especially when you suddenly remember you haven’t watched the Llama Song in several years and need to see it RIGHT NOW.
A few fiction websites, like SerialTeller, have tapped into that ADD mindset with ongoing stories that come in brief, one-page sections. It’s clearly meant to capture the easily distracted — the SerialTeller description practically begs you to become addicted to the site, boasting the “fastest-paced, sexiest and most riveting serial fiction on the planet!” And to be honest, the bite-sized chapter format does work well for online reading. However, while reading, I still found myself wishing I could tuck up on the couch with a paperback instead. For someone who grew up with her nose between sweet-smelling paper pages, even the most optimized online novel couldn’t compare.
So will online fiction supplant book-based fiction anytime soon? Not for me. However, in a world where graphic novels are sophisticated literature and e-readers are ubiquitous, I won’t be surprised if I hear my future children squealing over an online serial. So if you’re ahead of your time, feel free to check out some online fiction for yourself. Just watch out for eyestrain.