Reading Books in an Age of Information Overload - Plus Launch of the Barakah Academy Book Club!

The new Barakah Academy from Productive Muslim has launched, and I will be partnering with them on the book club component of it - click here for the details.

Leaders read and readers lead. 

That was the premise of an article I wrote about why we should read more along with strategies for how to do so. Once you are on board with that, how do you graduate to the next level? 

How do you read books to develop your own niche of expertise? How do you pick what books to read aside from going off the average customer review on Amazon? How do you critically read a book and think about the material? How do you filter what you read through the worldview of iman (faith)? And what’s the point, what is all this reading building toward? 

As the saying goes - if you read what everyone else reads, you’ll think what everyone else thinks. And in an age of information overload and viral content, we’re reading what everyone else is reading more than ever. 

How Do I Pick What to Read?

If you are reading fiction or reading for entertainment, then go with what you like. A book you enjoy and will actually read is much better than a critically acclaimed book your friends recommend, but you find yourself drudging through. 

I look at non-fiction in two broad categories: broad knowledge and deep knowledge. 

You need to have some type of learning strategy in place for yourself and identify subjects you want exposure to, and which ones you want depth. As you learn about one subject, you may change and want to go deeper on that topic - perfectly fine, adjust accordingly. 

When seeking broad knowledge on a topic, go with something recommended by a trusted resource, or get a popular book so that you have exposure to the key concepts. Let’s use leadership books as an example. A person could go read the 21 Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell - this book is famous, well reviewed, and covers the basic concepts. It provides a person with a good grasp of the essentials of leadership literature. 

Gaining exposure to a breadth of subjects should not be devalued. It is the formula to being “well-read Exposure to multiple subjects also helps the brain make connections with other topics. While you may not aspire to be an expert or activist in the arena of racism, reading one reputable book on the topic will help you intelligently understand discussions around it when you hear them. 

Some subjects will grab your attention and you will feel the drive to learn more. Embrace this and read further. These will be the subjects tied to your career or a significant personal interest. 

Reading for deep knowledge will mean hunting down resources. It will no longer be enough to only get the popular books. You may need to dig through bad ones to unearth information or points of benefit not readily available in other works. 

For me, this topic is public speaking and communication due to my work with Qalam Institute’s Khateeb and Public Speaking workshop. Depth of knowledge means sitting through (sometimes insufferable) books in order to glean subtle new nuances on a point, or find information that may end up becoming only a single bullet point in a day-long workshop. This is the work required to develop subject matter expertise. 

Reading for depth requires looking for disconfirming information. Continuing the example of leadership, if a person wants to go deep then 21 Laws would only be the introduction. They would need to seek out books, like Leadership BS for example, that point out the shortcomings of leadership development as laid out by books like 21 Laws of Leadership

Beware of getting stuck on a treadmill. This is when you keep reading the same type of material without growing in your understanding. It happened to me with business books while working on my YouTube series sharing 3 lessons I learned from various books I’d been reading. I noticed that they were, for the most part, providing the same key insights and lessons - just in different ways. Once you figure out the punchline, move on and look for something that builds on the understanding you have rather than repeats it.

Information overload plays a huge role. There are lots of books that you will feel like you should read, or are supposed to read. Strictness around what you aim to get out of each book will help. This helps you identify “important” books where a summary or a podcast interview with the author may be sufficient enough to understand the core points.

How Do You Critically Read a Book?

We need to go a step beyond the basic answer to this question. Reading something critically is about much more than highlighting, taking notes, and thinking about the points being made. 

Reading critically in the modern era means understanding the bigger picture of the book you are reading. Books are normally written to tell a story, inform, educate, recount experiences, entertain, or simply enrich. 

Books can also be written to function as an author’s business card  or to fill a line on their LinkedIn profile as a credibility marker. Some books are written as part of a contractual agreement. When an “influencer” or “expert” garners a large enough following, they may land a book deal. The first book usually aligns with whatever content helped them build that following. A book deal, however, can sometimes be for multiple books. After that first book, a second or third book is done by that author to fulfill a publishing contract - i.e. the book is written to generate sales first, not to provide quality information. 

There are a number of services available now that offer people a book in a box. They pay a third party company to ghost-write the book and then help market it. In some cases, authors (who have the resources) will find ways to buy their way onto best-seller lists. This is why you can read a highly reviewed and best-selling book but still be left scratching your head wondering what all the fuss was about. 

Books go far beyond the information within their covers. Understanding an author’s world-view is necessary to contextualize the conclusions they reach. You should also know what they are incentivized by. Is the book just a cog inside a larger marketing funnel for the author’s business? Who is held accountable if information in the book is wrong? Why is one narrative being told and not another? 

Take notes as you read a book. If questions come up, jot them down. If a passage in a book reminds you of something else (a video, an article, a personal experience, etc.) then make a note of that. Mark items that you want to research further on to either learn more, or perhaps to disprove a point being made. 

How do you filter what you read through the worldview of iman (faith)? 

A Muslim believes with certainty that the purpose of life is to worship Allah (swt). That puts our world view immediately at odds with many ideals that are taught and promoted. Our definition of ‘success’ will differ from what is found in best-selling books. The way we view ‘the best version of yourself’ will be different from what is found in self-help literature. Our business ethics will differ from what may be found in some business books. Put another way, our value system will be completely different. 

There are books like the 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene which provide quality information. It requires a faith lens, however, to contextualize that type of material and apply it in a good way. We may read books that extol the sacrifices a person made to fulfill their dreams and create a successful business. When looked at from a faith perspective however, we may find that sacrificing family is not something we can justify in the pursuit of establishing a successful company. 

Books written from a secular perspective give us a sense of observed reality. This has immense benefit, but we must always put it against the litmus test of the revealed reality Islam gives us. 

Many people approach this with an eye towards Islamifying concepts. They will read a book and then find ways to plug Islamic content into it to match up with what is presented. We want to take the opposite approach. Instead of Islamifying, we are starting with Islam and plugging in the other material as it fits and complements the foundation we have. 

What Is All This Building Toward? 

Why do we even read? What’s the true value add of the many hours spent on a book? The standard answer is that one actionable insight from a book can change your life - and that is absolutely true. 

There is a deeper answer though. We strive to be people who add value to the lives of others. We want to have unique perspectives and creative ideas. Those things don’t happen by accident. 

Your unique value add to this world comes from the intersection of your education, experiences, and relationships. No one else on earth has the exact same mix of those three elements as you. 

Always look for ways to invest in those to further your own growth. Reading is the easiest way to increase your level of education and learn how to think. A book is also a great way to learn from the experiences of others, enhancing your ability to empathize and relate. 

The more you invest in your own education, the better you are able to provide unique value that helps others. 

Which Leads Us To … A Different Kind of Book Club

It is with all of the above in mind that I am, alhamdulillah, excited to announce the launch of a new book club as part of the new Barakah Academy from the Productive Muslim Company. 

The Barakah Academy has courses, mastermind calls, and an entire community of Muslims focused on faith-based professional development. The book club is one component of that. 

In this book club we will tackle a theme each quarter. That means we will read 2-3 books every 3 months around one subject, looking at it from different angles. In the first quarter we’ll cover the theme of leadership and read 21 Laws of Leadership, Leadership BS, and The Leadership of Muhammad (saw). 

Within the book club is a weekly reading plan to help you not only keep up, but also develop a habit of reading. There will be additional resources every week to go deeper on the topics covered. You’ll also have a chance to engage other members of the academy going through the book as well as get your questions addressed during the quarterly mastermind calls. 

Click this link to sign up, and join our book club that will help you grow spiritually and professionally