Readers of Robert Musil’s great unfinished novel The Man Without Qualities will recall the moment early on when the book’s anti-hero Ulrich decides to give up on life’s usual ambitions and become a man “ohne Eigenschaften,” “without qualities.” It was when he chanced to see a racehorse described as “a racehorse of genius.” If a racehorse can be a “genius,” what then? Concluding that “no matter what you do . . . it doesn’t make the slightest difference,” Ulrich decides to take a year-long holiday from life.

We aren’t quite at that extremity. But news that the aging pop singer Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature did precipitate a wearisome sense of giddiness. Sara Danius, who made the announcement, acknowledged that some m ...