Nobel Prize Sperm Bank – human tragicomedy about eugenics

In "The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank," Slate reporter David Plotz has penned an improbably wonderful book. The Nobel Prize sperm bank was a daffy attempt at eugenics, created by a nutcase millionaire who made his fortune by inventing shatterproof plastic eye-glasses. He sought to recruit Nobel Prize winners and other worthies to donate their seed so that humanity's slide into genetic imbecility could be countered. He found an avid supporter in William B. Shockley, the inventor of contemporary transistors and father of Silicon Valley, who lost his mind later in life and became an avowed eugenicist, proposing cash incentives to poor black families to submit to sterilization. Needless to say, this did not improve the sperm bank's public reputation.

Nevertheless, women from across the country flocked to the bank, desperate for the chance to mother a child borne of super-sperm from ubermensch geniuses. Plotz's book begins with his coverage of the sperm bank on Slate, and then moves on to the incredible journey that was spawned by the popularity of his stories.

For years, Plotz traipsed across the country, tracking down donors, reciepients and offspring of the bank, and as he tells their stories, he reveals himself to be a gifted and insightful storyteller. He is unflinching in exposing their flaws, generous in showcasing their virtues. There are "superkids" whose lives are unraveling, others who shine — and parents with motives from venal to enlightened. The donors, too, run a gamut, from feckless liars whose only genius is as con-artists, to gentle and generous souls who long to meet their offspring.

Genius Factory showcases how good narrative nonfiction can be — I don't really much care about sperm donors or sperm banks, but I cared about the people in this book. Plotz even managed the admirable trick of inspiring a single quantum of sympathy for the lunatic founder of the bank, who ran his affairs with such feckless idiocy that there's really no excusing him.