The best essay you read in 2013 might be one which first appeared two decades ago. That doesn't mean this has been a weak year but it does suggest that Janet Malcolm's 1994 profile of the painter David Salle, which provides the title for Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (Granta, £20), is a timeless masterpiece. Reading Malcolm is like subletting a Manhattan apartment from the protagonist of a Woody Allen movie; Modernists mix with magazine editors, JD Salinger meets Diane Arbus, and a world of bohemian sophistication is illuminated by an exacting intelligence which never lets you get too comfortable. She calls Edith Wharton "the woman who hated women" but the novelist would have admired Malcolm's perceptiveness.
Featuring reviews of authors from Thomas Hardy to Cormac McCarthy, The Fun Stuff (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) displays the steely verve that makes James Wood's criticism thrilling for literature specialists and general readers alike. Wood believes WG Sebald's novel Austerlitz is about "saving the dead" and the late German's essays on "the awful tenacity", which sustained five writers and one painter whose work he cherished are well-served by Jo Catling's translations in A Place in the Country (Hamish Hamilton, £20).
Sebald emigrated to England but Berlin is where Romanian Nobel Laureate Herta Müller has lived and worked since 1987. In Cristina and Her Double (trans. Geoffrey Mulligan; Portobello, £18.99), she explores language, betrayal and "the dark side of the throat" that flourished under the Ceaușescu regime.
Deborah Levy recalls childhood under South African apartheid in Things I Don't Want to Know (Notting Hill Editions, £12). This beguiling meditation, which confronts the legacies of both George Orwell and Virginia Woolf, appears in an elegant volume, as does How Literature Saved My Life (Notting Hill Editions, £12), David Shields's gnarly fusion of memoir and avant-garde polemic. Shields is a controversial heir to the tradition of freewheeling self-inquiry, which was invented by Michel de Montaigne in the 16th-century, and a stunning limited edition of the French philosopher's Essays (trans. MA Screech; Penguin, £60) will delight bibliophiles. With contributions from Hilary Mantel, Alan Bennett and many more, Meeting the Devil: A Book of Memoir from the London Review of Books (William Heinemann, £25), is another ideal Christmas gift.
"Forgiveness is key," writes Anne Patchett, so excuse her cosy tips on becoming a novelist and enjoy the accounts of love and Nashville life which make This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Bloomsbury, £16.99) a wise, funny collection. The subject of distance – emotional and geographical – brings out the best in Patchett.
Aleksandar Hemon travels far in The Book of My Lives (Picador, £20). He claims he has to be coerced in to writing non-fiction but his journey from growing up in Sarajevo to achieving literary success in America, via civil war, football and family tragedy, is described in essays which read like they needed to be written. Avoid his recipe for borscht but savour this important book.