I've scratched around with the same question, to normalize or not, and I've got split answers. My current approach, accordingly, is to split the difference. I normalize tracks that are just too thin to work with, and leave everything else as is.
The bit-rate thing is pretty extensively, er, discussed elsewhere. The predominate view is that, because gain manipulation in digital (such as normalizing) reduces the effective bit rate, it's better to start with as high a bit rate as you can support. I record in 24-bit, cause I have the room and why not?, but I'm not a true believer -- for the music I record, on my system, with my ears, there's no difference between 16, 24, or 32.