Lesser did her undergraduate work at Harvard College and her graduate work at University of California, Berkeley, with time in between at King's College, Cambridge. She is the founding editor of the arts journal The Threepenny Review, and author of ten books, including one novel, The Pagoda in the Garden (Other Press, 2005), and her latest nonfiction book, Why I Read (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014).
She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Dedalus Foundation, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, among other places.
- The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History (1987)
- His Other Half: Men Looking at Women Through Art (1991)
- Pictures at an Execution (1994)
- A Director Calls (1997)
- The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters (1999)
- Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering (2002)
- The Pagoda in the Garden (2005)
- Room for Doubt (2007)
- Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets (2011)
- Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (2014)