If you are using instant yeast, you don't generally have to proof it in water first, but mix it in with the dry ingredients. I bought some by accident and then by coincidence got a whole book of recipes that call for it. Whew!
If your bread gets too dense from kneading, it might mean that you are adding too much additional flour at the kneading stage. Dough that is adequately kneaded is elastic because the gluten has developed well. If you take a small piece in your hands and stretch it, you should be able to get it thin enough that light will pass through without the dough ripping. This is the windowpane test. Another way to know that you have kneaded enough is that it springs back quickly when you pull away a piece and let go.
When you let the dough rise, does it rise quickly in a warm place, or slowly in a cooler place? In some ways it's better to do a slow cold rise. You can mix and knead the dough the night before you bake, let it rise in the fridge overnight, then let it come to room temperature for an hour or two before making the loaves, proofing the loaves (letting them rise in the pans) and then baking.
I agree with ladywolf about the Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book, it is excellent. I have also been grooving on The Bread Baker's Apprentice. I have not used it, but there is a bread machine cookbook by Lora Brody. I like Lora Brody so that might be a good book, maybe you can get one or all three of these from your library.