Langer grew up in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, where he attended Daniel Boone Elementary School. He attended Evanston Township High School from 1980-1984 and graduated from Vassar College in 1988. Returning to Chicago, he worked for a little over a decade as an editor, nonfiction author, playwright, theater director, and film producer. In 2000, he won a fellowship to Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program and remained in New York as a senior editor of Book Magazine until it folded in 2003. He is now a full-time writer. He had a weekly column in The Book Standard.
He is married to Beate Sissenich, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Indiana University-Bloomington. Their first daughter, Nora Langer Sissenich, was born on June 9, 2005; a second daughter, Solveig Langer Sissenich, was born September 10, 2009.