Totally agree — more does not always equal better. Google takes a sort of ‘Birds of a Feather’ approach when analyzing inbound links, so it’s really all about associating yourself (via inbound links) with websites Google deems high quality and trustworthy so that Google deems YOUR web page high quality and trustworthy. As you mentioned, trying to cut corners, buy links, do one-for-one trades, or otherwise game/manipulate the system never works. The algorithm is too smart.
Another excellent guide is Google’s “Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.” This is a free PDF download that covers basic tips that Google provides to its own employees on how to get listed. You’ll find it here. Also well worth checking out is Moz’s “Beginner’s Guide To SEO,” which you’ll find here, and the SEO Success Pyramid from Small Business Search Marketing.