Trying to learn Italian on the cheap, I recently downloaded a bunch of language apps on my i-phone. Among these is something called "Gengo Cards" —essentially digital flash cards with photographs on one "side" and corresponding words on the other. There are dozens of categories, such as "body parts" and "clothing," even "fairy tales" and "safari animals." The category "bookstore" consists mostly of different types of literary genres. The image-to-word correlation is especially rough in this category. For example, how do you represent "biography" in a photograph?
Well, how about a random picture of Mozart?
Here is the visual prompt for un romanzo (a novel):
And this is un libro di self-help:
My favorite photograph by far, however, is the one for "non-fiction" :
I just love her look of utter astonishment. Wow, truth really is stranger than fiction!
The term on the other "side" of this image reads un opera di saggistica, meaning "a work of nonfiction." The word saggistica is apparently derived from the Latin word "sapere," meaning "to taste of, to have understanding, to have sense." Un opera di saggistica is, in other words, a work of understanding—perhaps even one of wisdom, if saggistica is related, as I hope it is, to our words "sage" and "sagacious." What a term! What a thing to write! Almost as wonderful as the English word "essay," which I prefer to think of as a verb, as in, to write one is to try, to venture, endeavor, experiment, or attempt something.
As a practitioner of that humblest of prose genres, I love the grandiosity of un opera di saggistica, but I love our word "nonfiction" even more because it defines itself, like any decent contrarian, in terms of what it is not, and in this way leaves so much room for what it might be.